The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal is a non-proliferation deal signed in July 2015 between Iran and the E3/EU+3 [the United Kingdom (UK), France, Germany, High Representative of the European Union (EU) of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, United States (US), China, Russia].[i] The deal places restrictions on Iran’s nuclear development programme in exchange for relief from sanctions imposed by the UNSC, the US and the EU (2006–2012) on Iran. Its aim is that “under no circumstances” Iran should develop or acquire nuclear weapons, thereby reducing the prospects of conflicts in the region.[ii]The deal came under crisis in 2018 when the US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from it and restored US sanctions on Iran. The US withdrawal and unilateral imposition of the sanctions placed Europe in a difficult position. However, the European leaders unanimously agreed that the EU will stay in the agreement as long as Iran remains fully committed to it. A new hope for the restoration of JCPOA was provided by President Joe Biden’s arrival in the office. This was exhibited in a joint statement issued by the US and E3 countries (the UK, Germany, France) in February 2021, expressing US’ intention to return to talks with Iran. This led to the resumption of consultations in April 2021 in Vienna, hosted by the European External Action Service (EEAS). The E3/EU has since then played a significant role in facilitating the talks between all signatories. The paper looks at E3/EU’s role in the initiation of the deal, their responses to US withdrawal, and the role in the resumption of talks.
Europe’s role in initiation of the deal – Background of JCPOA
The Iran nuclear deal at the initial stage was E3 countries’ initiative to address Tehran’s nuclear activities.[iii]The reason was Iran’s nuclear activities, allegedly in contravention of its obligations under the NPT, which were identified as a threat in the European Security Strategy’s (ESS) report of 2003.[iv] In order to showcase a collective stand of Europe against Iran’s nuclear programme, the E3 along with the HR of the EU began negotiations with Tehran in 2003. Europe’s (E3 & EU) interest in Iran’s nuclear development programme was first, to avert another war in West Asia that could pose a potential security threat to Europe.[v] Second, to promote non-proliferation in the region.[vi] Lastly, in light of the EU’s divergent stands on the Iraq invasion in 2003, the E3/EU wished to develop a comprehensive, coherent and effective stand on security issues related to Iran’s nuclear activities which could provide a basis for the EU’s non-proliferation efforts in West Asia.[vii]
The E3/EU held negotiations with Iran for three years (2003 – 2006) - however, they were unable to chalk out a comprehensive plan, as Iran failed to adhere to curtailment of its nuclear activities, which it contended were peaceful in nature. With Iran’s advancement in uranium enrichment activities in 2006, Europe brought in major powers namely the US, Russia and China to take a tougher stand on Iran.[viii] Citing IAEA’s 2006 report on Tehran’s advancement in uranium enrichment activities, these countries backed UNSC sanctions on Iran in 2006, which were subsequently renewed in 2008, and 2010. Washington extended its sanctions on Iran’s energy sector, while EU boycotted Iranian oil and gas.[ix] The oil sanctions crippled the Iranian economy costing it approximately US$160 billion between 2012 and 2016.[x] Despite sanctions, the EU, under the leadership of then High Representative Catherine Ashton pushed for a diplomatic way of handling the situation which involved constant consultations with the parties involved. The talks continued even while the sanctions were imposed on Iran. Due to Tehran’s ‘consistent’ advancement of its nuclear programme, an agreement could not be reached.
A breakthrough in the deal came with the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran in 2012 and the subsequent regime change in Iran in 2013, which led to the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani.[xi] The JCPOA was signed on July 14, 2015, and was officially implemented on January 16, 2016. The deal is regarded as one of the EU’s greatest diplomatic achievements. The EU High Representative Frederica Mogherini, after signing of the deal said “Yesterday, the EU wrote one of the best pages of its history: the Iranian nuclear deal has been reached thanks to the facilitation of the EU... it is mainly thanks to the extraordinary work of an extraordinary team, the European one, that we made it”.[xii] The reason for JCPOA being one of the remarkable deals of the EU was that it exhibited the EU’s commitment towards multilateralism by involving countries from both the West and the East to come up with a comprehensive diplomatic plan. The JCPOA is considered to be a landmark deal in the EU’s external diplomacy as it showcased EU’s active role as facilitator in bringing main actors on a single platform.
The Iran Nuclear Deal (2015)
The JCPOA imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme limiting its ability to develop highly enriched uranium and plutonium used in nuclear weapons. The deal[xiii] required Iran to:
In exchange for this, the signatories agreed to gradually lift nuclear sanctions imposed on Iran, contingent upon IAEA’s periodic review of Tehran’s compliance with the JCPOA restrictions. The sanctions included restrictions put by the US, EU and UNSC on Iran’s energy, shipping, financial and automotive sectors.[xiv]
The US withdrawal and EU’s response
The deal came under crisis when US President Donald Trump in his speech at the White House on May 8, 2018 announced the US’ unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal. He stated that “the Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the US has ever entered into”.[xv] The official White House statement emphasised that, by withdrawing from the deal, President Trump was “saving America from a bad deal” which “enriched the Iranian regime and enabled its malign behaviour, while at best delaying its ability to pursue nuclear weapons and allowing it to preserve nuclear research and development”.[xvi] With this, the US immediately re-imposed sanctions targeting “critical sectors of Iran’s economy, such as its energy, petrochemical, and financial sectors”.[xvii] It also warned of “severe consequences” for businesses that continue trading with Iran.
The US withdrawal from the deal invited varied reactions from other signatories. The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani in his televised address to the nation on May 8, 2018, said that Iran “remains committed to the nuclear deal with world powers, despite the US decision to withdraw, but is also ready to resume uranium enrichment should the accord no longer offer benefits”.[xviii] The EU HR Mogherini expressed “deep regret” on US withdrawal, stating that “as long as Iran continues to implement its nuclear related commitments, as it has been doing so far and has been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 10 consecutive reports, the EU will remain committed to the continued full and effective implementation of the nuclear deal.”[xix] Other signatories such as China and Russia expressed concern over US withdrawal and their respective intention to stay in the deal. China’s special envoy to Middle East, Gong Xiaosheng said “Having a deal is better than no deal. Dialogue is better than confrontation”, while Russia said, it will try to keep the deal functioning.[xx]
In a bid to salvage the deal and also to protect the EU’s interests and companies trading with Iran from facing financial difficulties due to US sanctions, the EU came up with following set of measures-
In addition to this, in 2019 Iran demanded EU leaders ease sanctions and increase trade in oil and gas sectors, as the INSTEX mechanism dealt only in the areas of humanitarian aid such as food and medical supplies. Not satisfied with the measures taken, Iran announced halting of the restrictions put by JCPOA and started enriching uranium above 3.67%, as was stated in the deal.[xxvii] EU expressed its concerns over Iran’s reaction, as the EU spokesperson said “We strongly urge Iran to stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its commitments under the JCPOA...we are in contact with the other JCPOA participants regarding the next steps”.[xxviii]
The Resumption of talks
President Joe Biden, during his Presidential campaign, expressed the intention of the US to return to the Iran nuclear deal. This was featured in an opinion piece by President Biden on CNN in September 2020,[xxix] wherein he expressed that “if Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the US would re-join the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations”.[xxx] The change in the US administration renewed the hope for the revival of the nuclear deal. This was highlighted in the joint statement by E3 and the US issued in February 2021, after a Ministerial meeting on Iran, wherein Washington expressed its intention to re-join the nuclear deal if Iran returns to full compliance with commitments under the JCPOA.[xxxi] The US and E3 countries raised concerns over Iran’s actions to enrich uranium at a much higher level than stated in the JCPOA agreement, reducing Iran’s ‘breakout time’[xxxii] to just a few months. There are reports suggesting that, currently, Iran is enriching uranium up to 60% level, below the weapons-grade level of 90%.[xxxiii]
With the resumption of talks in April 2021, Europe has yet again come to play the role of facilitator to restore the nuclear deal, as Tehran has refused to engage in direct talks with Washington. Due to Iran’s reluctance, the EEAS’s Deputy Secretary General, Enrique Mora has played the role of intermediary by putting forward US’ demands on the table.[xxxiv] Iranians have asked the US to “change course” and return to the nuclear deal, prior to any direct talks.[xxxv] The Iranian demand for change of course refers to Washington’s demand of Tehran’s strict compliance with the uranium enrichment standards and other restrictions on its nuclear programme set in JCPOA.
Iran has maintained three major demands on returning to its JCPOA commitments. First, the US lifts all JCPOA and non-JCPOA related sanctions on it. Second, the US should provide a legal guarantee that it will not pull back from the deal again. Third, if the US returns to the deal and withdraws again, the EU will take efforts to invest more money in the INSTEX trade mechanism in order to trade-off the US sanctions.[xxxvi]The Foreign Minister of Iran, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in his official statement on Vienna talks in late November 2021 said, “Iran is prepared to cease application of all its remedial measures if guarantees are provided, damages are assessed, and all sanctions are effectively and verifiably lifted”.[xxxvii]
Citing urgency to halt Iran’s nuclear program, Europe has time and again urged both, the US and Iran, to come to some arrangement. The E3 countries in their December 14, 2021 joint statement criticised Iran for its “maximalist demands” adding that “we are nearing the point where Iran’s escalation of its nuclear programme will have completely hollowed out the JCPOA”.[xxxviii] This view is, however, not shared by Russia with its senior diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov stating in an interview to Foreign Policy magazine in December 2021, that “this sense of urgency is a little bit exaggerated”, adding “yes, it’s urgent, but let’s be prudent; let’s [not] set up artificial deadlines”.[xxxix] However, Russia along with China, maintain that Iran should cut back on its maximalist demands.
Public opinion in Iran on JCPOA appears to be split. According to a survey conducted by IranPoll[xl] in August – September 2021, 36 percent of Iranians, favoured staying in the JCPOA but not fulfilling all Iran's obligations, while 31 percent preferred gradually moving back into compliance. Another 28 percent wanted Iran to formally withdraw from the JCPOA altogether.
The eighth round of Vienna Talks resumed on February 8, 2022, with no direct participation of the US. Iran has not agreed to hold direct talks with their American counterparts as they demand full waiver of all American sanctions, including on oil and gas trade. In light of this, Tehran deems the recent restoration of sanction waiver on its nuclear programme by the US “good but not enough”.[xli] A US State Department spokesperson said on February 8, 2022 that “a deal that addresses all sides' core concerns is in sight, but if it is not reached in the coming weeks, Iran's ongoing nuclear advances will make it impossible for us to return to the JCPOA”.[xlii] The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, expressed his concerns over the delay, stating that “we gave them a clear message that now is the time for decisions and for progress, and not for prolonging the process” and that “we hope that they will use the chance”.[xliii] With both, the US and Iran standing ground on their respective demands, the EU is pushing for the revival of the deal by being a mediator. The E3/EU, by initiating and facilitating the Iran nuclear deal, demonstrated their determination towards a multilateral approach of handling Iran’s nuclear “advancements”. It brought all major world powers on to a single platform and provided a diplomatic way-ahead to deal with Iran’s nuclear programme. Now, the EU is yet again playing the role of a coordinator in reviving the nuclear deal, however its success depends on the US and Iran’s agreements to each other’s demands.
*Akanksha Thakur, Research Intern, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views are personal.
[i] “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Vienna, 14 July 2015 PREFACE The E3/EU+3 (China,
France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the.” European Parliament, 14 July 2015 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/122460/full-text-of-the-iran-nuclear-deal.pdf Accessed30 January 2022.
[iii]Adebahr, Cornelius. Europe and Iran: The Nuclear Deal and Beyond. Oxon, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.
[iv]Meier, Oliver. “European efforts so solve the conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme: how has the European Union performed?” SIPRI, 17 May 2010, https://www.nonproliferation.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/olivermeier51191b5bdb350.pdf Accessed 30 January 2022.
[v]Alcaro, Riccardo, and Andrea Dessi. “A Last Line of Defence: A Strategy for Europe to Preserve the Iran Nuclear Deal.” 2019. Jstor),https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep19684?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents . Accessed 30 January 2022.
[vii]Adebahr, Cornelius. Europe and Iran: The Nuclear Deal and Beyond. Oxon, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.Pg 42.
[viii]Allen, Aaron. “Europe's Role in Reconstituting the Iran Nuclear Deal.” CEPA, 19 April 2021, https://cepa.org/europes-role-in-reconstituting-the-iran-nuclear-deal/ Accessed 31 January 2022.
[x]“Iran nuclear deal: What it all means.” BBC, 23 November 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33521655 Accessed 3 February 2022.
[xi]Mousavian, Seyed Hossein. “An EU Strategy for relations with Iran after the nuclear deal.” European Parliament, 23 June 2016, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/IDAN/2016/578005/EXPO_IDA(2016)578005_EN. pdf. Accessed 31 January 2022.
[xii]“Mogherini proud of EU contribution to Iranian deal.” European External Action Security, 15 July 2015, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/2427/mogherini-proud-eu-contribution-iranian-deal_en. Accessed 31 January 2022.
[xiv]Williams, John C., and Kali Robinson. “What Is the Iran Nuclear Deal?” Council on Foreign Relations, 18 August 2021, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal. Accessed 3 February 2022.
[xv]Trump, Donald J. “President Donald J. Trump is Ending United States Participation in an Unacceptable Iran Deal – The White House.” Trump White House Archives, 8 May 2018, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-ending-united-states-participation-unacceptable-iran-deal/. Accessed 31 January 2022.
[xviii]“Iran prepared for all scenarios if trump nixes nuclear deal official says.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/iran-prepared-for-all-scenarios-if-trump-nixes-nuclear-deal-officials-say/2018/05/08/531047a0-5241-11e8-a6d4-ca1d035642ce_story.html?noredirect=on. Accessed 31 January 2022.
[xix] Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the EU following US President Trump's announcement on the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) 9/5/2018 “Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the EU following US President Trump's announcement on the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). European External Action Service, 9 may 2018, https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/japan_en/44295/Declaration%20by%20the%20High%20Representative%20on%20behalf%20of%20the%20EU%20following%20US%20President%20Trump's%20announcement%20on%20the%20Iran%20nuclear%20deal%20(JCPOA). Accessed 31 January 2022.
[xx]“World leaders react to US withdrawal from Iranian nuclear deal | Hassan Rouhani News.” Al
Jazeera, 9 May 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/5/9/world-leaders-react-to-us-withdrawal-from-iranian-n clear-deal. Accessed 31 January 2022
[xxi]“EU shield EU companies from reimposed US sanctions.” Brussels, 6 August 2018, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/49155/iran-deal-eu-shield-eu-companies-re-imposed-us-sanctions_en. Accessed 1 february 2022
[xxiii]“European Commission adopts support package for Iran, with a focus on the private se.” europa.eu, 23 August 2018, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_18_5103. Accessed 1 February 2022.
[xxv]“Founding Statement.” INSTEX, https://instex-europe.com/about-us/founding-statement/. Accessed 1 February 2022.
[xxvi]“The Instex Payment System.” Management Study Guide, https://www.managementstudyguide.com/instex-payment-system.htm. Accessed 1 February 2022.
[xxvii]“Iran to breach uranium enrichment limits set by landmark nuclear deal.” CNN, 7 July 2019,
https://edition.cnn.com/2019/07/07/middleeast/iran-nuclear-agreement-intl/index.html . Accessed1 February 2022.
[xxix]Biden, Joe. “Joe Biden: There's a smarter way to be tough on Iran.” CNN, 13 September 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/13/opinions/smarter-way-to-be-tough-on-iran-joe-biden/index.html. Accessed 2 February 2022.
[xxxi]Joint Statement by the Secretary of State of the United States of America and the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom - United States Department of State.” State Department, 18 February 2021, https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-by-the-secretary-of-state-of-the-united-states-of-america-and-the-foreign-ministers-of-france-germany-the-united-kingdom/. Accessed 2 February 2022.
[xxxii]Time required gathering fissile material to produce nuclear bomb.
[xxxiii]GAMBRELL, JON. “Iran starts enriching uranium to 60%, its highest level ever.” AP News, 17 April 2021, https://apnews.com/article/iran-uranium-enrichment-60-percent-ed89e322595004fddc65fd4e31c1131b. Accessed 3 February 2022
[xxxiv]“US 'prepared to meet directly' with Iran as nuclear talks reach critical phase.” France 24, 24 January 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20220124-us-prepared-to-meet-directly-with-iran-as-nuclear-talks-reach-critical-phase. Accessed 3 February 2022
[xxxvi]Wintour, Patrick. “Iran nuclear talks deadlock risks dangerous vacuum | Iran nuclear deal.” The Guardian, 17 January 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/17/iran-nuclear-talks-deadlock-risks-dangerous-vacuum. Accessed 3 February 2022
[xxxvii]Amir-Abdollahian, Hossein. “Vienna Talks for the Removal of Sanctions.” Tehran, 29 November 2022, https://en.mfa.gov.ir/portal/newsview/660409. Accessed 3 february 2022.
[xxxviii]The diplomatic door is firmly open for Iran to do a deal now. GOV.UK, 14 December 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-diplomatic-door-is-firmly-open-for-iran-to-do-a-deal-now. Accessed 3 February 2022
[xxxix]Lynch, Colum. “US Gives Iran Weeks to Strike Nuclear Bargain or Slow Its Nuclear Program.” Foreign Policy, 28 December 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/12/28/iran-nuclear-deal-jcpoa-vienna-capabilities-biden/. Accessed 3 February 2022.
[xl]“Poll: Iranians on Nuclear Program, Talks.” The Iran Primer, 20 October 2021, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2021/oct/20/poll-iranians-nuclear-program-talks. Accessed 3 February 2022
[xli]Biden Administration restores sanctions waiver to iran. Aljazeera News, 4th February 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/4/biden-administration-restores-sanctions-waiver-to-iran. Accessed 4th February 2022.
[xlii] US says Iran nuclear deal possible but urgent need to finalise agreement, France 24, 8th February 2022,https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20220208-us-says-iran-nuclear-deal-possible-but-urgent-need-to-finalise-agreement. Accessed 8th February 2022.