Europe has only a few hours to convince U.S. President Donald Trump to stay in the nuclear deal with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and persuade Tehran to address concerns about its ballistic missiles program and regional role.
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrived on May 6 in Washington, D.C. to ask Trump not to “scuttle the Iran nuclear deal.”
Writing in an op-ed in the New York Times, Johnson said, “Every available alternative is worse. The wisest course would be to improve the handcuffs rather than break them.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, however, rebuffed such efforts, saying, “Some European countries are making concessions from our pocket.”
Zarif’s criticism was directed at efforts by the United Kingdom, Germany, and France to keep the United States in JCPOA. That same day, however, Deputy for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari met with European counterparts in Rome. According to a statement released by the EU, the meeting focused on the political and humanitarian situation in Yemen and “participants agreed to meet again in this format in Brussels in the near future.”
When asked by RFE/RL's Rikard Jozwiak whether the talks in Rome should be interpreted by Washington as a sign of Europe’s engagement with Iran, EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said there is “no doubt” that Europe is engaged.
“We believe JCPOA is delivering,” she said. “In this context, the efforts continue, and it is separate from all considerations and work we do on regional dynamics.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi acknowledged on May 7 that the talks focused on regional matters, but when asked how these relate to U.S. concerns he said, “There has been no new agreement, and there will not be one.”
Another concern of Trump’s administration and some Europeans is Iran’s ballistic missiles program. Washington maintains that it is a threat to the region and its allies, while Iran argues that the program is a matter of national security and defense and it is beyond negotiation.
In recent years, Iran has faced various sanctions for developing and testing missiles. Accordingly, there were efforts by the EU to impose related additional sanctions on Iran. However, the plan -- which some observers termed an effort to assure the United States that the EU is serious -- never came to fruition. Sources at the EU told RFE/RL on May 4 that “unless magic happens, there will be no EU sanctions before the 12th.”
The United States has repeatedly criticized the mechanisms envisioned in the nuclear deal to access Iran’s military sites. The issue is reportedly a matter of contention between Europe and the United States. A European source told Reuters that the issue is “already implicit in the original deal.”
Observers say one scenario that could materialize on May 12 is that Trump will not sign the waivers, which doesn’t necessarily mean the United States will leave JPCOA immediately.
Richard Nephew, a former coordinator on sanctions policy at the U.S. State Department, warned that this could “in theory bring back in place all sanctions pressure on Iran.” Nephew, who recently published a book called The Art of Sanctions, told Radio Farda that the real problem is that “the sanctions on May 12 govern oil purchases, and the companies that buy oil will have to start making decisions almost immediately on how much oil to buy in the next 180 days.”
“Unless he (Trump) sends a very strong message indicating this is not the end of the road, I don’t think many of these companies will wait around,” he added. “The moment you have companies stop buying as much Iranian oil, then the economic pressure on Iran will start to build as well as political pressure on Rouhani.”
In the event of a U.S. exit, attempts will take shape in the coming weeks to contain Iran. Dieter Dettke, adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., warns that it could lead to “more bilateralism being injected into the international system.”
European parties still insist on pursuing a multilateral setting by negotiating with the United States and Iran, but they are preparing for an unraveling of the nuclear deal and trying to secure political and economic relations with Tehran.
On May 7, following a meeting in Berlin, the foreign ministers of France and Germany vowed to remain in the deal regardless of U.S.’s decision. Stressing this decision, German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass told reporters that France and Germany have campaigned for weeks because they “believe this agreement makes the world safer, and without this agreement the world would be less safe.”
The other two parties to JCPOA, Russia and China, have repeatedly proclaimed support for the deal but have yet to publicly engage in active diplomatic efforts.
Meanwhile, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said in his latest statement on May 7 that Tehran would continue to remain in the nuclear deal with the West even if the United States pulls out, on the condition that the other parties remain in the deal.