The basic approach of the EU/E3 has been to pursue a compartmentalised approach in their relations with Iran, of which the JCPOA was the most critical area. The interviews conducted for this brief uniformly indicate the narrow pursuit of a mechanism that would prevent nuclear proliferation across the Middle East with Iran as the linchpin, assuming that should it create a nuclear weapons capability, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will follow. In other words, the threat to regional stability of a nuclear-armed Iran was seen as both acute and meaningful. The resulting issue-specific approach also aimed to lay the groundwork for an expanding diplomatic agenda covering matters such as Iran’s missile programme and regional footprint. In short, the JCPOA was conceived in London, Berlin, Brussels and Paris as a diplomatic effort to contain a credible threat of nuclear proliferation and to build confidence in the process.
Singling out the nuclear issue had the advantage of focus, but the disadvantage of unmooring it from the broader regional security equation in terms of its evolving threat perceptions, strategic posture and conventional capabilities. While connecting the two issues too tightly would have spelled a premature end of the JCPOA, their lack of connectivity meant that an opportunity was missed to embed the JCPOA negotiations in a broader regional security dialogue with political and military ‘tables’ that could have created space to voice concerns, develop side deals and create some confidence.
The absence of any forum for the main regional powers and their global partners to talk with one another has certainly been instrumental in building up momentum against the JCPOA when the Middle East was transformed by the geopolitical earthquakes of 2011 and 2014. When JCPOA negotiations entered the highly technical world of civil versus military nuclear capability development, it became easy to forget that the very context in which these negotiations took place was turning upside down. The JCPOA negotiations concluded in an environment in which concerns about Iran’s regional security profile were mounting as it morphed into a more credible counterweight to Saudi/Emirati-led authoritarian retrenchment across the region and Israeli settler expansionism. Conversely, Iran paradoxically pursued détente with the West via the JCPOA, while simultaneously increasing tensions with the same West by expanding its regional militant influence in Syria and Iraq. In part, this reflects the permanent competition within Iran between pragmatist/reformist and conservative/radical fundamentalist foreign policy agendas.
Today, the European objectives of preventing proliferation and building confidence remain largely unchanged, although both are in jeopardy. Neither is there a backup plan. Interviews in Berlin, Paris, Brussels and The Hague conducted for this paper suggest that the focus of these capitals is on keeping Iran in the JCPOA as much as possible. To keep the deal alive, they intend to keep the conversation with Tehran going to buy time and to offer limited practical support to Iran via the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) – just below the US sanctions response threshold. The idea is that if the EU/E3 can maintain communications and a very modest momentum, an upgraded form of the deal might yet be revived after the US Presidential elections in November 2020. The US aim of regime change in Iran is clearly recognised in Berlin, Paris, Brussels and The Hague. However, while it is viewed with incredulity, resistance to it is almost nonexistent due to the deeply ingrained transatlantic security reflex – especially among foreign policy communities in Berlin and The Hague.