Last month when US President Donald Trump called for a renegotiation of the so-called Iran nuclear deal, Tehran, the European Union, Russia and China responded with a chorus of “No! No!” and dismissed Trump’s move as “totally unacceptable.”
Trump, however, set the clock ticking by fixing a 120-day delay in which those involved in the “nuke deal” should come up with a clear agenda for renegotiation.
With the clock ticking, the thunderous “no! no!” became a sotto voce “well, maybe!”
Last week, EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn surprised everyone by announcing that the Commission, in consultation with Britain, France and Germany, is “closely studying President Trump’s statement and its consequences.”
More importantly, Hahn revealed that the EU had raised the issue of fresh negotiation during a brief visit to Brussels by the Islamic Republic's Foreign Minister Muhamad-Javad Zarif. Special focus on projected talks would be on “Tensions in the Middle East, Iran’s ballistic missiles projects, and end of the year the mass protests in Iran.”
It is significant that the EU’s nuanced response to Trump’s statement has come from Commissioner Hahn and not the union’s official foreign policy spokesperson Ms. Federica Mogherini who is regarded as a passionate advocate of the Islamic Republic.
The impression that the EU is moving towards Trump’s position, at least half-way, was reinforced when, according to the Financial Times, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel telephoned the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to signal EU’s readiness to engage Iran in talks on Tehran’s missile projects and regional ambitions. Gabriel went further to claim that Iran had expressed its readiness for new talks during Zarif’s visit to Brussels.
Though Iran denied those reports, it did not call in the German Ambassador to Tehran for “explanations”, a routine move in the diplomatic sphere. The reports were given additional weight when the German Foreign Ministry refused to deny them.
“The world has three months in which to find a compromise,” says Farid Vashani, an analyst of Iran’s foreign relations. “Trump has said this may be the last time he signs a waiver on the Iran nuclear deal. He could, of course, do a Frank Sinatra and have another last time in three months’ time. But that is unlikely. The Europeans, Russia and China will have to give him something not to throw the whole thing out of the window.”
But, what could the EU, and others, give Trump?
The first item would be the reassertion for the fact that the “deal”, known as the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (CJPOA) is an implicit verbal understanding with no legal basis and thus capable of countless reinterpretations.
This was pointed out in some detail in an editorial published by the Tehran daily Vatan-e-Emruz.
“The totality of sanctions the US has accepted to suspend represents a small portion of sanctions imposed on Iran by the US Congress and presidential decrees,' the paper said. “ At the same time, there is no commitment not to impose new sanctions.”
Thus the second item on the list of concessions that the EU, Russia and China could give to stop Trump from denouncing the CJPOA is to impose new sanctions on Iran related to issues not directly linked to the nuclear project.
According to reports broadcast by Manoto, a popular Iranian satellite TV channel, the EU has already decided to ban all flights by Mahan Air, Iran’s second-biggest carrier by next March. Mahan Air is charged with transporting thousands of Afghan and Pakistani “volunteers for martyrdom” from Iran to fight in Syria. This violates the International Air Transport Agency (IATA) protocols under which civilian aircraft cannot be sued for military purposes. An end to Mahan Air flights would reduce Iran’s capacity to ferry troops and mercenaries to Syria and to ship arms to the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah.
Despite Ms. Mogherini’s lyrical praise of the Islamic Republic, the EU is coming up with other measures against Iran.
Germany has suspended the application of export guarantee rules, known as Hermes, for trade with Iran and France has toughened its trade rules known as COFACE. Under new procedures, the so-called “dual use” rule would be applied to all trade with the Islamic Republic. This is supposed to prevent Iran from obtaining know-how, material and equipment that could have a military use. But its net effect would be to slow down deliveries to Iran and increase the cost.
For its part Britain has reneged on an earlier promise to release some $500 million in Iranian frozen assets, citing “technical difficulties.”
Last week, the financial control authority in Luxembourg authorized the Clear Stream- an investment firm- to freeze some $4.9 billion in Iran’s assets until further notice. The firm reports that some $1.9 billion of the sums involved have already been handed over to a US court for payment to families of 241 US Marines killed by Hezbollah in a suicide attack in Beirut in 1983.
On a broader scale, the EU has all but suspended a number of contracts already signed with Iran in the form of memoranda of understanding. The largest of these is the $5 billion deal with the French oil giant TOTAL to develop an offshore Iranian gas-field. The EU Commission wants to reexamine that in detail.
In Austria the government has refused to provide guarantees for a $1 billion loan negotiated by a private Vienna bank with Iran, making sure that no transfer of money will happen in the near future. A similar deal between Tehran and a consortium of Italian banks is likely to meet the same fate.
A number of EU members have also imposed strict limits on a number of visas issued to Iranian citizens for either business or pleasure. Britain has chosen a limit of 2000 visas a month, including hundreds issued to Islamic Republic officials and their families. Greece has imposed no limit but is under investigation for reports that its consulate in Tehran was selling Schengen visas, allowing travel to 19 EU countries, for up to $3000 apiece.
The emerging EU strategy seems to be aimed at persuading Trump to help keep CJPOA in place, at least in name, but make its implementation conditional to a parallel set of talks aimed at stopping Iran’s missile project, ending Iran’s intervention in the Middle East and improving respect for human rights inside Iran.
The time-limit fixed by Trump ends in March which will coincide with the date set for a review of CJPOA by the foreign ministers of all the seven nations involved in it.
At that time Tehran would be given the option of either accepting a new set of restrictions on its military, economic and domestic policies or bang the door and walk out in anger, something that might not displease Trump.