Despite American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the remaining signatories still believe in the agreement. The US election on Tuesday provides them with hope. However, whether Washington simply reverses its course under Joe Biden is not a certainty.
US Withdrawal from the Iran Deal
On May 8, 2018, President Trump withdrew from the international nuclear agreement. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, was designed to prevent Iran from building an atomic bomb. Tehran pledged to limit its uranium enrichment significantly and accept strict international controls, while in return, the US and the EU lifted their sanctions against the country. To this day, the deal remains one of President Obama’s most controversial foreign policy moves.
Donald Trump already made it clear in the 2015 election campaign how bad he thought the deal was. He repeatedly called it the “worst deal ever made.”
President Obama signed and negotiated the deal primarily with Germany, France, and Great Britain. China and Russia are also signatories.
Europe’s Perspective on the Iran Deal
For the EU, it was a symbolic deal and seemingly put it as primus inter pares at the table with the world’s geopolitical powers. The exit of the US three years later was hence all the more disappointing. As a result, Europe had to watch as the US again imposed sanctions on Iran, and Tehran gradually announced that it would no longer adhere to its obligations.
From a European perspective, this is worrying, as Iran is currently making progress, such as on centrifuges and in research on the nuclear program. It is also questionable whether these advances are reversible under a new treaty.
The European states still stand by the agreement today. They founded Instex to continue trading with Iran despite US sanctions. However, this has proven to be ineffective, and Europe’s trade promises did not materialize.
The EU clings to the fact that essential pillars, such as inspections, are currently still in force. In Europe’s eyes, it is all the more critical, especially when considering a possible new beginning, that this agreement will still exist until then so that one does not have to start entirely from scratch.
Could There Really be a Reset with Iran?
However, a new beginning is currently questionable. In the past, Trump has stated that he is ready to negotiate a new, better deal but to no avail so far. Instead, the Trump administration has imposed maximum pressure on Iran with severe economic consequences for the country.
Even if Trump was to lose the election on Tuesday, Europe may not get its deal back right away nor unconditional.
Biden has made no binding statement on the issue other than his proclivity to return to the negotiation table if Iran once again fully complies with the terms of the deal – including to cease the sponsor of terrorism- and to end Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. However, after years of confrontation, his diplomatic approach to a long-time adversary in the Middle East and the primary source of destabilization in the region could prove an unforgiving challenge.
The complexities range from the Iranian demands for compensation for damage caused by the restoration of Trump’s sanctions to a rapidly transforming Middle East. The demands for compensation appear particularly inconceivable if Republicans maintained a Senate majority on Tuesday.
The peace agreements of Arab nations with Israel have isolated Iran increasingly. Arguably the most important country left without a peace agreement, Saudi Arabia, is Iran’s primary rival for regional hegemony. It could link a potential détente with Israel to the condition that Washington will not reinstate the previous nuclear deal. Other Sunni Arab nations and US allies in the region are also strongly opposing any new agreement with Iran.
Moreover, the priority in a Biden White House would be the fight against COVID. Realistically speaking, at least another year will pass before negotiations with Iran and Europe could even begin.