The European Union and JCPOA

On May 8th this year, US president Donald Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, or so-called ”Iran nuclear deal”. Shortly after Trump’s announcement, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, announced that the US decision was unfortunate but the EU would continue to support the deal as long as Iran continued to respect it as well. In fact, the EU has had a significant role as a mediator in the negotiations.

The EU and Iran have had relations that correlate essentially with the Iranian domestic political situation and EU-Iran-relations have gone back and forth hand in hand with the Iranian political openings. Since the early 2000, the EU has needed cooperation with Iran in terms of energy and business, especially to avoid deepening energy cooperation with Russia. The EU has preferred to maintain a dialogue format for the conduct of the relations. EU’s policies towards Iran have always differentiated a bit of those by the US (US either isolates or includes Iran), which can be seen as a good thing, especially in the negotiations towards the nuclear non-proliferation of Iran. On the contrary, Iran’s moves and discourses towards the EU, especially Britain have not always been the nicest. For example, the episode of Iranian embassy in Britain in the 1980s, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency have been affecting negatively in the relations of the two.
In 2002, the need for a common, international agreement for nuclear plan towards Iran rose above all from the Iranian opposition group that found out Iran hiding some of its nuclear activities from the IAEA, and the international community got to know that Iran had undeclared nuclear sites in Naranz and Karak. Originally, Iran has a right to enrich some uranium for peaceful purposes, such as providing energy for the growing population, but the amount of LEU (low-enriched-uranium) was so alarming that the international community had to react. Iran has kept its nuclear activities hidden even after that: in July 2015, Iran had a large stockpile of enriched uranium and as much centrifuges in a country to create 10 bigger bombs, according to the Obama administration.
The negotiations towards nuclear non-proliferation of Iran started already in the year 2003, when president Khatami was still in power. The EU had a strong role already in the beginning of the negotiations: in 2003, the EU3 countries’ foreign ministers travelled to Tehran trying to convince the regime with high expectations for Iran to end its uranium enrichment, provide full details about the nuclear program and sign a treaty of nuclear non-proliferation. The EU’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana was in the negotiating team and the EU3 succeeded to find an agreement to the point that the Paris agreement was signed with Iran in 15th of November 2004. This can be considered as a landmark of working EU joint diplomacy but also for the EU as a mediator in transatlantic diplomacy with the States and in nuclear policy towards Iran.
After the Paris agreement in 2004, the following years of negotiations towards the JPA and JCPOA were not as easy: Ahmadinejad was chosen as a president of Iran in 2005 and he was a controversial president for Europe (for example, by denying holocaust). In addition, the Islamic regime didn’t want to cooperate with the international community. In 2006, Iran didn’t provide enough information about its’ nuclear activities and was referred to the UN security council. The UN’s first round of sanctions (resolution 1737) were imposed towards Iran and were followed by bilateral sanctions made by the US and EU. During this time the EU continued to pursue a substantive role in the negotiations: Javier Solana kept an ongoing dialogue towards Tehran by presenting two offers for Iran in 2006 and in 2008: both of which Iran later denied. By denying the packages Iran got also new rounds of sanctions to freeze their financial assets abroad.
The years 2008 and 2009 were better for the negotiations: the EU and the US made a third offer together towards Iran during Geneva talks 2008. This was a remarkable year already for the fact that the US and Tehran negotiators were in a same negotiation table face-to-face after three decades. The offered deal included two steps by providing fuel for Iran’s research reactor in exchange to Iran transferring approximately 80 percent of its enriched uranium to abroad. Although this proposal gave a better hope at first, it ended up being rejected by Tehran under the pressure of conservatives and reformers. Even so, the Javier Solana’s and the EU’s role here was worth noting because the US and Iran officials were at the same table in Geneva talks.
By 2009, Tehran had already rejected three EU-led proposals. Javier Solana’s time as a EU-head of the negotiation time got into an end in 2009, and Catherine Ashton pursued his work. By the year 2013, the EU had already put a lot of political effort to the negotiations to the negotiations, and especially Ashton had made a big effort to maintain the relations towards Iran. During 2010 and 2013, the EU had imposed tight sanctions on Iran, and the talks between the six countries didn’t produce a new agreement on the nuclear issues. As a critique of EU’s crucial role on the negotiations, the focus of the EU in 2014 was a bit too much on the negative aspects of the sanctions, which showed EU’s limited capacity to estimate Iran’s interests.

The crucial years of 2013-2015

From the Iranian perspective, negotiations took a new positive turn in 2013, when reformist Hassan Rouhani was elected as a president: his priority was to empower Iran’s economy, implement domestic reforms and lift up the sanctions posed towards Iran. This was surprisingly supported by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei: he apparently wanted to find a compromise in the 2013 elections aftermath, when he saw the people where not happy with the Islamic Regime anymore. The EU profited this by continuing talks with Iran which resulted in November 2013 as a Joint Plan of Action, Ashton as a head of the EU3+3 talks. At the same time, Obama became the US president, which marked another positive tone towards Iranian administration. This means that the EU’s High Representative was not the only positive factor: Obama’s office opened better communication towards Iran, where there was more cooperative president to answer at that time.
[bctt tweet=”From the Iranian perspective, negotiations took a new positive turn in 2013, when reformist Hassan Rouhani was elected as a president: his priority was to empower Iran’s economy, implement domestic reforms and lift up the sanctions posed towards Iran.” username=”eurooppanuoret”]
The EU’s facilitation after 2013 was important to pursue the negotiations and to achieve the JCPOA deal in 2015. The task was not easy, but luckily Catherine Ashton had opened good relations towards Iran, which her successor Mogherini succeeded to maintain: for example, she and her staff participated in all of the bilateral meetings by the US and Iran representatives in 2013-2015 and she has gotten a lot of global praise for her role as a mediator.
Between the years 2013 and 2015, there were many extensions of final deadline and failed negotiations. Especially Mogherini’s staff did a lot trying to progress the talks: on April 2015, the parties announced the final framework to be done in the end of June 2015, which finally succeeded at the beginning of July 2015. In addition to the EU’s administration, the deal wouldn’t be made without the European businesses and their lobbying: the economic incentive and the sanctions started to affect crucially to Iran’s economy and its’ growing population. The big European companies, such as Siemens and Bayer, did well in order to put pressure towards Iran: the lifting of the sanctions would benefit essentially Iranian economy. Between March and December 2015, around 70 economic delegations from Europe visited Iran, which surely left an impact for the ongoing negotiations. Therefore, we can say that it was not only the EU who succeeded to offer incentives to Iran, but also European companies and especially those companies who operated in energy sector

What now?

Since the US resigned from the agreement, the first and second round of frozen economical obligations have entered into force, the second having been on 4th of November 2018. The EU has assured many times its’ commitment in the agreement to maintain peace, at least as long as Iran continues to imply it as well.
[bctt tweet=”Because Iran’s interests for the agreement are mainly economical, it is essential for especially to the EU/EU3-countries to show their support to continue business with Iran. ” username=”eurooppanuoret”]
Because Iran’s interests for the agreement are mainly economical, it is essential for especially to the EU/EU3-countries to show their support to continue business with Iran. For example, French company Total has a great deal of business and investments in Iran which should be ensured to continue. The EU has made facilitation measures for European businesses’ trade towards Iran and in addition to this, the European Investment Bank has started to guarantee loans for European companies to secure the investments in Iran, which can be considered as a positive sign. The JCPOA’s destiny lies economically a lot within the EU’s hands.
The EU3 and other countries of the JCPOA met recently before the UN General Assembly in New York, where all the parties continued to announce their engagement to the JCPOA agreement. Despite the ongoing arguments and power battles in the Middle East between Iran and the US, the EU has reacted quickly and positively towards Iranian government. This being said, we could conclude that the EU has done its part, but the on-going power battle between other great powers in the Middle East can still change a lot. And towards the greater super powers such as the US, the EU’s influence is limited, which can also affect the JCPOA deal. We can only hope that EU still continues to strengthen especially its economic efforts towards Iran and maintain a constructive dialogue so that the future of the agreement’s stays stable.
TEXT Laura Saarinen
PHOTO European External Action Service / Flickr
The writer is a soon-to-be-master of social sciences, currently based as an Erasmus student in Paris and originally from Tampere University. Her interests include Iranian culture, the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU and French politics.