Vulcan Insight

France hosts European-US talks to save the Iran Nuclear Deal

19 February 2021

When reflecting on the chain of events that led to a souring of Transatlantic relations under the Trump administration, the American decision to unilaterally pull out of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and reimpose crippling sanctions on Iran in 2018 was undoubtedly one of the most consequential.

It forced the European JCPOA signatories, most notably France, Germany and the UK to very publicly veer away from their American partner as they established the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) to bypass American sanctions.

Since then, Iran has started to enrich uranium at levels above what is permitted by the deal. Recognising the danger of the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon capability, Biden said during the Presidential campaign that he intended to re-join the JCPOA but said he would not lift sanctions in order to draw Iran back into compliance unless it stopped its enrichment practices.

The latest iteration of the Middle East Scholar Barometer, conducted by the University of Maryland and George Washington University in February, found that 67% of respondents said the foreign policy strategy most likely to produce “favourable results” for the U.S. would be Biden returning “immediately” to the current JCPOA before negotiating any other conditions with Iran.

Yesterday, the Foreign Ministers of Germany, France and the UK met to discuss Iran at a meeting in Paris, while new U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined via videoconference. The meeting came after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded “actions not words” from the U.S. if it wanted to revive the JCPOA nuclear deal. The Iranian UN Ambassador said this week that there was huge importance for “the role the EU can play in order to facilitate the return of the United States to the JCPOA”.

Analysts believe only a small window of opportunity remains to save the landmark deal, especially as tensions are expected to heighten further as Iran plans to restrict some International Atomic Energy Agency inspections if the U.S. does not lift sanctions by 21st February under the terms of a Bill adopted in the Iranian parliament in December. Iranian Presidential elections in June add another time pressure factor, as President Hassan Rouhani is set to step down after serving the maximum two consecutive terms.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for Iran to return to full compliance in a rare phone call with Rouhani earlier this week. For his part, Rouhani said the only way forward was for the U.S. to revoke its “inhumane and illegal” sanctions on Iran. Separately, on Wednesday, President Biden had his first phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally of President Trump’s. They discussed the future the Iranian threat and regional challenges, agreeing to continue their dialogue in the coming months.

Blinken will return to diplomatic screens next week at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting, while President Biden will address the Munich Security Conference today.