Debate in Iran over Europe as Reliable Partner in Nuclear Standoff

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Oct 6, 2017
Debate in Iran over Europe as Reliable Partner in Nuclear Standoff

As the Trump administration is threatening to walk away from the Iran nuclear agreement, an intense debate is taking place inside Iran about whether the Islamic Republic can count on Europe as a reliable partner against Washington’s “unilateralism.” During Friday prayers in Tehran today, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, called on the Rouhani government “not to rely on European support because if Europe has to choose between Iran and America, it will choose America.” He accused Washington of having violated both the letter and spirit of the nuclear accord and stressed that the deal is non-negotiable.

In contrast, officials within the Rouhani government and pro-Rouhani media outlets count on European support to prevent U.S. from walking away from the deal. The Rouhani government is also seeking closer diplomatic and economic ties with European powers to “isolate” Washington and minimize the impact of new U.S. sanctions against Iran. Iran newspaper, a government-run outlet that reflects the policies of the Rouhani team, wrote today that European countries, particularly the business community, support the nuclear deal and close relations with the Islamic Republic. The paper referred to an Iranian investment conference in Switzerland on Wednesday, in which Helga Schmid, secretary general of the E.U.’s foreign policy affairs, spoke in support of the nuclear accord to a large gathering of European business representatives.  

Comment: The Rouhani government has waged a diplomatic offensive to court European support as Washington is hinting at walking away from the nuclear deal. Iran is trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and major European countries so as to minimize the impact of U.S. sanctions if Washington ultimately decides to scrap the J.C.P.O.A.

When French President Emmanuel Macron won the elections in France, President Hassan Rouhani congratulated him and urged the new government in Paris to play a more active role in the implementation of the nuclear agreement. Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also used their last month’s U.N. General Assembly trip to garner the Europeans’ support for the nuclear agreement. Moreover, Iranian lawmakers have urge the Rouhani government to "work with Brussels to challenge Washington’s unilateralism."

After the signing of the J.C.P.O.A., most nuclear-related sanctions against Iran were lifted in January 2016. However, existing U.S. sanctions and the Trump administration’s threat to scrap the nuclear deal have made many major international companies and banks to do business with Iran. But Tehran has lately been successful in attracting some European companies to invest in the country. Last month, Bpifrance, France’s state investment bank, announced that it is willing to finance investment projects of French companies in Iran starting next year. All three European signatories of the Iran deal – France, Germany and Britain – have opposed the Trump administration’s demand to renegotiate or cancel the nuclear deal.  

However, as remarks by Ahmad Khatami, a close aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, indicate, not everyone in Tehran trusts European powers. Hardliners, in particular, argue that the Europeans have historically sided with Washington to punish Iran and will do so in the future. Javan Online, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, wrote recently that Zarif’s idea to work with Europe to isolate America is unrealistic. It said the Rouhani team was similarly optimistic about negotiating with the United States, but all Iran got was more sanctions, more military threats and repeated violations of the J.C.P.O.A. terms by Washington. Javan also pointed to the latest proposal by France that the nuclear deal could be supplemented with “consultations” on loopholes within the accord, including the post-2025 period and Iran’s missile program. It argued that such talks show that Europe will still be keen to work with America against Iran in the future.

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