Donald Trump, due to announce on January 12 whether he will reimpose heavy sanctions on Iran which could lead to the destruction of the nuclear deal, has come under immense pressure from European powers to ensure the accord survives.
The huge importance of the agreement to the Islamic Republic—for two years it has relieved Iran of crippling sanctions that shut its central bank out of the world financial system and barred its oil industry from world markets—is shown by the latest economic forecasting by the World Bank. It this week cited the hardened nuclear deal stance by the US to partly explain why it has reduced its expectation for finalised Iranian GDP growth in 2017 to 3.6% from 4.0%. If the accord entirely unravels, Iran's hopes for economic expansion in the years ahead would then take a much greater hit through impacts on trade, investment and available financing. That's a big worry for a country that has lately faced nationwide street protests largely blamed by most observers on growing economic hardship, particularly in the provinces.
"The deal is working; it is delivering on its main goal, which means keeping the Iranian nuclear programme in check and under close surveillance," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said after meeting her Iranian, UK, French and German counterparts in Brussels on the eve of Trump's decision.
She added: "The unity of the international community is essential to preserve a deal that is working, that is making the world safer and that is preventing a potential nuclear arms race in the region. And we expect all parties to continue to fully implement this agreement."
On January 10, the Associated Press quoted US officials as saying the American president was expected to extend the sanctions relief for another 120 days, but they added that he might also unveil fresh, targeted sanctions on Iranian companies and individuals allegedly involved in missile tests, supporting terrorism, and human rights abuses. Later on the same day, news agencies reported the US Justice Department as saying that it is to establish a “financing and narcoterrorism” team to target Iran’s Lebanon-based ally Hezbollah, which the US considers a terrorist organisation.
Despite the reports indicating Trump will be persuaded to take a face-saving route by issuing the waivers that will protect the nuclear deal while at the same time introducing new cutting sanctions that will ratchet up pressure on Tehran, as ever with Trump analysts were not ruling out the chance of some kind of surprise, either nasty or encouraging.
After the Brussels meeting, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson underlined how the deal is seen as successfully preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and challenged Washington to come up with a better alternative.
Referring to the deal, formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as a "considerable diplomatic accomplishment", Johnson said: "I don't think that anybody has produced a better alternative to the JCPOA as a way of preventing the Iranians from going ahead with the acquisition of a military nuclear capability. It is incumbent on those who oppose the JCPOA to come up with that better solution, because we have not seen it so far."
Trump, who has claimed that the “one-sided” deal signed by his predecessor Barack Obama is so poor that it is an “embarrassment” to the US, wants to either amend the accord or withdraw from it, and last October, after declining to recertify for Congress that Iran was complying with the JCPOA, he accused Tehran of "not living up to the spirit" of the agreement. The US president has also hit out at Iran's ballistic missile development programme—although the Iranians say it is not developing missiles capable of carrying a nuclear payload—and at the nuclear deal's "sunset clauses". One clause permits the lifting of restrictions on Iran's uranium enrichment programme after 2025.
Iran has warned Trump that should the US withdraw from the multilateral agreement, it is ready to give an "appropriate and heavy response". This would likely include the restarting of uranium enrichment forbidden by the JCPOA.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not join the post-meeting press conference after the Brussels gathering he attended with counterparts, but tweeted: “Strong consensus in Brussels today: 1) Iran is complying with #JCPOA, 2) Iranian people have every right to all its dividends, 3) Any move that undermines JCPOA is unacceptable. E3 and EU fully aware that Iran’s continued compliance conditioned on full compliance by the US.”
The German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said in his remarks: “We want to protect the JCPOA against every possible undermining decision whatever that may come. It would send a very dangerous signal to the rest of the world if the only agreement that prevents the proliferation of nuclear weapons was negatively affected.”
The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, noted: “There is no indication today that could call into doubt Iranian respect of the agreement.”
Le Drian added that European governments remained willing to press Tehran on its missile programme and regional activities but said that this would have to occur separately from the nuclear accord. By regional activities, the minister was clearly referring to Iran's roles in Middle East conflicts, particularly those in Syria and Yemen. Iran's involvement in Yemen has greatly angered US ally Saudi Arabia, which is spending a fortune trying to keep rebels at bay in the neighbouring country and has earned international opprobrium for blockades that have caused a humanitarian catastrophe among civilians.