In the short span of five years, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has gone from a diplomatic triumph in the service of conflict prevention and non-proliferation to a driver of polarisation and conflict. The twists and turns of its gradual decline have shown the US to be an unreliable international negotiator with few qualms about achieving regime change at the price of wholesale economic degradation of another society. Iran has evolved from an initial victim of undeserved misfortune – as it stuck to the terms of JCPOA while sanctions were brought against it – into a more repressive actor focused on its own security with little regard for the dire situation it has helped to bring about in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. In turn, the European Union (EU) has been exposed as the ‘emperor with no clothes’ as per Andersen’s tale. Despite all its economic might, it proved unable to facilitate Iran’s return to the global economy in the face of US sanctions. This has brought closer the outcomes it sought to avoid by negotiating the JCPOA: regional nuclear proliferation and instability.
Today, the JCPOA is on lifeline support. Instead of obtaining a better deal, the US strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ has so far increased regional polarisation, conflict and the risk of proliferation. It has also undermined reformist elements in Iran’s government, impoverished its population and made it more dependent on (semi-)public charity. In addition, the US sanctions regime is producing geopolitical effects that include nudging Iran towards China and Russia as well as alienating its European ‘partners’ by exposing and abusing their lack of economic strategic autonomy. At the regional level, US sanctions risk creating an alternative economic order in the region with negative consequences for the global economy and turning Yemen into an even more protracted conflict. Sanctions have made a regional security initiative more necessary, but less likely.
It is not too late for the EU to introduce some common sense in this tense geopolitical equation. From a security perspective, the US-Iran conflict can only be resolved well after the US elections. But to defuse tensions and lower any perceived need for military action on the part of Iran, the EU can decide to support it with a large-scale Covid-19 humanitarian economy recovery package. Since such measures are already sanctions-exempt, they are a relatively conflict-free way of relieving pressure on the Iranian population and its government. It can be followed by an economic connectivity initiative that grants preferential access to the EU’s internal market for industrial and agricultural goods from the Middle East (for Iran via extended use of the ‘Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges’ – INSTEX). Such measures will neither restore confidence between the US and Iran nor alter their regional security postures. But they can show that there is an alternative to confrontation and insert the EU more firmly between both parties as an intermediary actor.