The narrow path to agreement: How Europe should support the Iran nuclear deal

If European governments want to salvage the deal before it is too late, while also opening up the prospect of negotiations with Iran on regional security, they need to quickly and clearly reject the argument that the two issues should be bundled together

In celebration of the 42nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran, February 2021
Image by picture alliance / REUTERS | Majid Asgaripour / Wana News Agency

President Joe Biden inherited a US maximum pressure policy on Iran that has seen Tehran’s nuclear programme advance with each passing day. While Biden has committed to returning to the nuclear deal – reflecting a shared US and European strategic priority to address the proliferation risk from Iran – it is unclear how he will do so. Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron pitched himself as an ‘honest broker’ between the Biden administration and Tehran  – but he also insisted that countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, should be involved in talks. If Europeans want to contain the risks from Iran’s expanding nuclear activities quickly, it is critical that they avoid obstructing the process by pressuring Biden to tie the nuclear talks to negotiations on regional security: this approach would almost certainly doom the nuclear discussions – and broader Western ambitions on regional issues – to failure.

In recent weeks, there have been growing calls from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia to be included in the Iran talks. Israel is focused on pushing for a more restrictive nuclear deal that mirrors Donald Trump’s maximalist demands (including an end to Iran’s uranium enrichment programme). Gulf Arab monarchies, meanwhile, are urging the US to prioritise regional threats from Iran, including its missile programme. These countries largely share the view that the US should maintain Trump’s maximum pressure campaign to force more concessions from Tehran.

For their part, the European countries that are party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (the E3) – are sending mixed signals on their priorities. While maintaining that they want the US and Iran to return to full JCPOA compliance, they are also at times pushing for further concessions from Iran as part of the process. The German foreign minister has called for a “broader deal”, while Macron (ahead of an upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia) said that parties to the JCPOA “need to include our allies in the region for a nuclear deal” – although it was not clear whether he was referring to a formal process.

If European governments want to salvage the nuclear deal before it is too late, while also opening up the prospect of negotiations with Iran on regional security, they need to quickly and clearly reject the argument that the two issues should be bundled together. While there is an obvious need for regional security talks, tying this to the JCPOA process is likely to kill any prospect of successful negotiations on either track. Indeed, this is the outcome likely favoured by some states that now advocate for a more inclusive process – which hope to force Iran to capitulate on a range of issues, an unfeasible outcome so disastrously pursued by the Trump administration.

There are several factors that Biden and the E3 should carefully consider. Firstly, the reality is that, since Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear deal and imposed unprecedented sanctions on Iran, Tehran has made clear that it will not engage in further negotiations until America fulfils its JCPOA commitments. Following the maximum pressure campaign – which brought the US and Iran close to a military conflict – both sides urgently need to re-establish a degree of trust by restoring the previous agreement before moving on to non-nuclear issues. And while some claim that the US and Europe can use maximum pressure to force Iran to the table, the escalation that has occurred in the past four years should disabuse anyone of this belief.

It also remains highly improbable that Iran and its opponents in the Middle East could reach an agreement on these issues in the short term. Israel and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to be willing to negotiate with Iran on only the nuclear issue, leaving aside the regional concerns that Riyadh has said it views as more important. Iran is not going to be willing to make further nuclear concessions while sitting across the table from Israel – whose undeclared nuclear weapons are not monitored by international inspectors. Conditioning the US return to the JCPOA on regional security talks – which is likely to take years, if not decades, to produce solutions – is a recipe for failure.

Meanwhile, this process also risks undermining the fragile international consensus on Iran’s nuclear programme (legally enshrined at the UN Security Council). A major part of the JCPOA’s success story was its ability to bring world powers together on a common position to contain Iran’s nuclear activities. This consensus could easily fracture when it comes to Iran’s missiles and regional activities. Russia and China do not view these issues in the same way that the E3 and the US do, and they are likely to oppose attempts to broaden the JCPOA’s terms and participants. Moreover, Russia is cooperating with Iran in places such as Syria – which remains an arena for regional contestation. And, while the West and its regional partners want to limit Iran’s military capabilities, Beijing and Moscow have increased their security and military partnerships with Tehran.

The longer it takes to get the US and Iran back to the JCPOA, the more advanced Iran’s nuclear programme will likely become

Against this complicated backdrop, the US and E3 countries should remain acutely aware of a dangerous ticking clock: Iran is speeding ahead with its nuclear programme in direct response to the intense sanctions the US has imposed on it since 2019 (even as its regional activities have intensified during this period). The longer it takes to get the US and Iran back to the JCPOA, the more advanced Iran’s nuclear programme will likely become. If a harder-line Iranian government comes to power following elections this year, it will likely make progress on the JCPOA track even tougher. This could push Israel towards military action aimed at slowing down Iran’s nuclear capabilities, creating greater instability in the Middle East.

The stark reality is that, at this stage, any movement away from narrow nuclear talks designed to revive the JCPOA is likely to fail not just on that front, but also in efforts to stabilise the region.

To avoid this outcome, the US and Europe should immediately focus on addressing the nuclear issue – to both contain the Iranian nuclear programme before it is too late and to lay the groundwork for subsequent wider negotiations on regional security. This means returning to the JCPOA as it was initially agreed, without drawing in new participants or changing its terms. To be sure, Western countries should consult Middle Eastern allies on the JCPOA track. But it would be hugely counterproductive to formally draw them into the process and to hold the JCPOA hostage to attempts to force concessions from Iran on regional security or its missiles programme.

After four years of instability and a constant risk of regional conflict under the Trump administration, it is now time for a unified transatlantic approach that is realistic about what is possible with Iran. Rather than complicating a US return to the nuclear deal in a fashion that risks closing the door to all negotiations, Europeans should declare clear support for a focused approach on preserving this critical agreement. By doing so, they would also widen the space for negotiations with Iran on regional security.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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