Eight years after its landmark 2015 nuclear deal the European Union’s relationship with Iran remains fraught.
At various points during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the EU slapped sanctions on Iran, including for supplying hundreds of drones to Russia. And it also placed tariffs relating to human rights violations – linked to the repression of protesters and the kidnapping of European hostages.
However, Europe is also attempting to build bridges – through recent informal talks with Iran – which seek to reinstate some form of nuclear deal.
Europe must also decide if it will break its side of the 2015 agreement for the first time – by retaining ballistic missile sanctions on Iran – which were set to expire in October. If the bloc lets them expire, Iran will, effectively, be open to supplying more deadly drones – or other weapons – to Russia.
So, how much of an impact has the outbreak of the war in Ukraine had on Europe’s already-weak nuclear deal with Iran? And what kind of future deal could be on the cards for Europe and Iran?
What is the JCPOA -Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?
The JCPOA stipulated that economic sanctions on Iran would be lifted, if it curtailed its nuclear weapons programme. It limited Tehran’s uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms and enrichment to 3.67% until 2031 – which is enough to fuel a nuclear power plant.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that the country’s total stockpiles of enriched uranium are 21 times higher than the amount permitted under the 2015 nuclear deal.
Who signed it?
The JCPOA deal was signed by Iran and the P5+1 (the UN’s Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany). It was then implemented by the UN and the European Union.
Background: The collapse of the initial deal
Following the US’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018, former President Donald Trump implemented crippling economic sanctions on Iran under its maximum pressure strategy. Tehran has since escalated its nuclear programme – producing uranium enriched to 60% purity. This is a level which goes beyond civilian use – with weapons-grade purity standing at 90%.
It’s a cause for concern for the EU, which must also decide whether it will maintain ballistic missile sanctions, months after Iran launched its new ballistic missile dubbed the “Khorramshahr-4” and the “Khaybar.” This has sparked fears that Iran will transfer these missiles to Russia, following on from its transfers of hundreds of drones.
Sanctions relating to Iran’s production of ballistic missiles were set to expire in October 2023, under one of the 2015 deal’s ‘sunset clauses’. These expiration dates planned to allow Iran to resume uranium enrichment activities, in exchange for it respecting the provisions of the deal.
Both Iran and the US have since violated the terms of the deal.
Despite the breakdown of the official deal in 2018, Europe relaunched formal negotiations with Iran in Vienna from April 2021.
“Europe showed that it really wants to broker a deal. We take our commitments seriously. But there has been naivety regarding Iran’s intentions for far too long”, European MEP Bart Groothuis, Vice-Chair of the EU delegation for relations with Iran, told Euronews.
The talks were subject to months-long periods of deadlock, with tensions further heightened by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022.
“Even after the Iranians raised multiple new negotiating parameters one of the big hurdles was the switch in the Russian position and the pausing of the priority of nuclear diplomacy”, Behnam Ben Taleblu, Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Euronews.
As one of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, Russia was a key signatory of the original 2015 nuclear deal.
“Many had thought there would be a deal coming in early February 2022 – a deal that was weaker than the 2015 agreement – but that was ultimately put on ice by the invasion of Ukraine”, Behnam Ben Taleblu added.
However, experts have also concluded that Iran’s ill-informed judgement impacted its decision to side with Russia.
“If the war in Ukraine had not happened, there would have been a better chance of restoring the nuclear deal. It led to an Iranian miscalculation that the Europeans would need Iran’s energy resources, that Iran would have more leverage in the negotiations. And I think they overplayed their hand”, Ali Vaez, Crisis Group’s Iran Project Director, told Euronews.
The talks eventually broke down in August 2022, with European High Representative Josep Borrell tweeting “what can be negotiated has been negotiated, and it’s now in a final text.”
A new attempt at reaching a deal
Informal, behind-closed-doors meetings have carried on since the stalemate on official negotiations. As recently as June, 2023, European Union mediator Enrique Mora met with Iranian representatives in Qatar.
They have been working to sketch out steps that could curb Iran’s escalating nuclear programme, as as well as drafting policy relating to freeing US and European detainees held in Iran. The prospect of unfreezing some Iranian assets abroad has also been discussed.
In parallel, United States and Iranian officials have been holding indirect talks in Oman. However, though dialogue is open, clashes are still rife. The United States and its Western allies confronted Russia and Iran about Tehran’s advances in uranium enrichment and its supply of combat drones to Moscow at a UN Security Council session in early July.
Britain’s UN ambassador, Barbara Wood, condemned Iran for the transfer of hundreds of drones used to “kill civilians and illegally target civilian infrastructure” in Russia. The US, Britain, France and Ukraine urged UN Secretary-General António Guterres to send investigators to examine debris from Russian drone attacks.
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused Britain – which holds the rotating Council presidency – of seeking to hold “an openly-politicised show” by inviting Ukraine to participate in the meeting, despite it not being a party to the JCPOA.
What future for a deal?
Although experts agree that a future deal is still on the cards, it amounts to a watered-down version of the initial 2015 JCPOA agreement. The focus revolves around preventing further escalation through ensuring that Iran does not enrich uranium purity levels beyond the 60% threshold.
“It really does not amount to dismantling centrifuges or to rolling back any of Iran’s nuclear activities, but it is more or less to keep things where they are’” Ali Vaez says. However, Europe’s role in negotiations remains limited by the US.
“Europe has not imposed nuclear-related sanctions, which they can lift as an incentive to Iran. And they would not be able to do much as long as US sanctions are in place because of the chilling effect that those sanctions have on European companies calculations”, adds Vaez.
Indeed, Europe’s commitment to the deal was not enough to incentivise Iran to stick to its conditions back in 2018. “At the end of the day, it is the US that determines the status of Iran’s relations with the West”, states Vaez.