The Iran Nuclear Deal Is Dying But It's Not Dead Yet

The Iran nuclear deal has suffered serious successive blows since President Donald Trump's decision to abandon the agreement two and a half years ago, but with Europe's recent move to challenge Iran's compliance, the historic accord faces its greatest crisis yet.

France, Germany and the United Kingdom last week triggered the dispute resolution mechanism to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in an attempt to reverse Iran's gradual pullback from its nuclear-related commitments. If the issue is not resolved, the agreement could unravel altogether.

Iran has rolled back its nuclear limitations because it argues its JCPOA benefits have diminished since the 2018 U.S. exit from the agreement and the implementation of strict sanctions that pressure countries to not trade with Tehran.

The dispute resolution mechanism is a complex, multi-step process within an already complicated arrangement between six countries—China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia and the U.K.—that remain a party to the JCPOA. Although its triggering raises new doubts about a struggling agreement's viability, all parties argue they want the deal to survive.

How and in what capacity, however, remains a central point of contention.

"We triggered the DRM because Iran isn't complying with their end of the deal, but we fundamentally believe in the provisions of this deal," a senior U.K. official told Newsweek. "It's consistent with our support for the deal to try and resolve this through the procedures it set out, so our objective by doing it is to bring Iran back into compliance and to make sure that breakout time doesn't start to shrink"—referring to the time it would hypothetically take Iran to build a nuclear weapon.

Iran has denied seeking nuclear weapons. Tehran also contends that its recent moves did not violate the JCPOA, but are a systematic response enshrined within the deal to answer Europe's own shortcomings.

"The invoking of DRM is not legitimate, it lacks any legal basis because you cannot trigger DRM for remedial measures, we are taking these steps in the face of others not doing their commitments," a senior Iranian official told Newsweek. "We are doing exactly as the JCPOA told us we can do."

europe, russia, china, iran, nuclear, deal
Iranian political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran Abbas Araghchi (C-R) and German Secretary General of the European External Action Service Helga Maria Schmid (C-L) attend a meeting of the Joint Commission on Iran's nuclear program at an EU Delegation to the International Organizations office in Vienna, Austria, on December 6, 2019. Though France, Germany and the U.K. opposed the U.S. exit from the 2015 nuclear deal, the European trio has since struggled to make their agreement with Iran work. JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Trump's May 8, 2018 decision to leave the nuclear deal was opposed by the deal's signatories. Two days later, Iran initiated a dispute resolution mechanism of its own, calling for a joint commission session among the remaining parties, then followed by a ministerial meeting at which all parties committed to "providing practical solutions in order to maintain the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran."

Iran's trade with Europe continued to plummet, however, under the pressure of U.S. sanctions. Iran then announced last year—on the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal—that it would begin loosening nuclear restrictions as per Paragraph 26 allowing Tehran to "cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part" should any sanctions be reintroduced.

"We saw no movement from Europe in the meantime, and came to the conclusion that they are either unable or unwilling to take any meaningful measure against the U.S. unilateral sanctions," the senior Iranian official told Newsweek. "We thought at that point that the timing is right to take the remedial measures, and those measures are not against JCPOA, they're not a breach of JCPOA, they are fully consistent with the JCPOA.

"That was our right to do it, no one can complain about it," the official said.

Europe did issue a complaint at the time. China and Russia expressed disappointment but mostly blamed the U.S. for having reneged on the deal and for stirring Middle East tensions that would only escalate drastically in the months to follow.

As the situation in the Persian Gulf grew increasingly uncertain, the U.K. joined a U.S.-led naval coalition in the region, further angering Iran as it took additional steps away from the nuclear deal.

Tehran earlier this month made its fifth and what the senior Iranian official described to Newsweek as its "final" step after the U.S. killed Iran's Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad International Airport. The EU held an extraordinary session in Brussels a week later and, after four days, France, Germany and the U.K. triggered the dispute resolution mechanism.

The senior U.K. official told Newsweek it was unlikely Iran "could be terribly surprised."

uk, vessel, iran, revolutionary, guard, tanker
The U.K.-flagged Stena Impero is seen being seized and detained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard between July 19 and July 21, 2019 in Bandar Abbas, Iran. The tanker was accused of violating "international maritime rules" in the Strait of Hormuz just days after an Iranian supertanker was seized and detained in U.K.-controlled Gibraltar on accusations of violating EU sanctions. Tasnim News Agency/Getty Images

"We think it's the inevitable next step following their announcement and in fact these conversations about whether we need to trigger the DRM have been going on for some time," the official added. "This is actually the best way for them to come back to the table with the remaining parties to the deal and to find a way forward. We don't think it's in their interest for the JCPOA to collapse."

The senior Iranian official confirmed the move came as no surprise, but argued that it's Europe failing to live up to its end of the agreement, which the official said has again been balanced by Iran's scaled-back approach.

The senior Iranian official explained some "minor benefits" of Tehran staying in the deal. These include Iran cooperating with Europe on nuclear issues, working with the IAEA on technical matters and the lifting of U.N. Security Council resolutions targeting the Islamic Republic, which as of this October will be free of an arms embargo should the nuclear deal hold up.

There was also INSTEX. The U.S. sanctions-dodging, special-trade vehicle was announced by France, Germany and the U.K. in September 2018, but has not made any substantial impact on trade ties. Both the senior U.K. and senior Iranian official agreed that INSTEX in its current form could never substitute sanctions relief.

"In terms of our compliance we have done the things that have asked of us under the terms of the deal, but we recognize that much of the sanctions relief was going to come from the U.S.," the senior U.K. official told Newsweek. "Of course, the U.S. withdrawing from the deal has meant that that's not a reality."

"The priority now should be to de-escalate tensions between Iran and the U.S. and find a diplomatic solution that protects the gains of the JCPOA and also tackles Iran's destabilizing behavior in the region," the official said.

iran, nuclear, power, facility, construction
A picture taken on November 10, 2019, shows workers on a construction site in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant during an official ceremony to kick-start works for a second reactor at the facility. Bushehr is Iran's only nuclear power station and is currently running on imported fuel from Russia that is closely monitored by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

What comes next is a matter of protocol. The first step of the dispute resolution mechanism grants 15 days for the joint commission to gather and discuss the issue. Without a settlement, the second step calls for a ministerial meeting within an additional 15 days. The third step also leaves room for the formation of an advisory board to issue a non-binding opinion within those same 15 days and to be considered over the course of five additional days.

Failure to reach an understanding at this stage could see the complaining party cease its JCPOA functions altogether and hand the issue to the U.N. Security Council, which has 30 days to vote in favor of extending sanctions relief as outlined in steps four and five. If this cannot secure a majority among the 15-member council or if a permanent member like the U.S. vetoes it, international sanctions against Tehran are re-imposed—step six.

Both the senior Iranian and U.K. officials emphasized this was not a certain outcome, nor one they sought. The senior Iranian official, however, argued that, should the row reach the Security Council, "it means the Europeans have decided that they don't want the JCPOA anymore."

"In that case, we will have our own options," the official said, "but that's not a desirable path for anyone."