Iran gets clear signal of EU plan to stand by nuclear deal

Mohammad Javad Zarif optimistic Tehran’s interests will be preserved despite US pullout

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is welcomed by Belgium’s foreign minister Didier Reynders  at the Egmont Palace in Brussels on May 15th, 2018. Photograph: Eric  Lalmand/AFP/Getty

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is welcomed by Belgium’s foreign minister Didier Reynders at the Egmont Palace in Brussels on May 15th, 2018. Photograph: Eric Lalmand/AFP/Getty

 

The EU on Tuesday made clear to Iran that if it adheres to the nuclear deal repudiated by the US , the EU will do so too.

The union’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, and the foreign ministers of the UK, France and Germany, who are party to the deal, met Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Brussels for a first exchange on how the deal can be saved.

Under the deal, agreed in 2015 by Iran and the UN Security Council’s five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – and Germany, Iran committed to curbing its nuclear activities in return for an easing of economic sanctions.

Tehran has said it will wait 60 days before it takes any measures contrary to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action deal, known as the JCPOA, in a bid to see if the other signatories are willing to make it work.

Following the hour-long meeting, Mr Zarif said he had had a constructive discussion and was optimistic Iran’s interests in the JCPOA could be preserved despite the US withdrawal. He said he believed both sides were “on the right track” to make sure that the interests of the deal’s “remaining participants, particularly Iran, will be preserved and guaranteed”.

‘Secondary sanctions’

The European Commission will on Wednesday at its weekly meeting consider means of protecting EU companies which are hit by US “secondary sanctions” for continuing to trade with Iran. It will report to EU leaders later in the evening when they meet in Sofia for dinner ahead of the Western Balkans summit on Thursday.

An EU senior source was insistent that there would be consensus at the leaders’ meeting on the need to stand firm on the JCPOA and on the need to protect EU companies from sanctions. The meeting was unlikely to discuss in detail how that would be done.

One approach under consideration is the use of an EU “blocking regulation” that would, in essence, ban European companies from respecting US sanctions where those sanctions might damage EU interests, notably trade and the movement of capital.

Criminal charges

The regulation has been brandished as a threat in the past, notably in the 1990s over US sanctions on businesses dealing with Cuba, but never used. It’s unclear how well the measure could be enforced, given that big multinationals are likely to be doing more business in the US than they are in Iran and may be unwilling to compromise that market access. European companies could still face big fines, asset seizures and even criminal charges in the US.

The EU could also deploy retaliatory sanctions or make a complaint about the US measures to the World Trade Organisation. None of the options, however, would be politically easy or are guaranteed to be particularly effective, and all are viewed with some trepidation by EU diplomats.

The EU’s energy commissioner is also travelling this week to Iran to discuss strengthening European energy support to the Islamic Republic.