Europe faces a nuclear moment

For months Iran has been violating the 2015 nuclear deal while promising to comply again if President Donald Trump abandons his “maximum pressure” campaign. Germany, France and the U.K. have criticized Tehran and Washington while trying to save the accord, but on Tuesday the Europeans took a major step toward finally siding with the U.S.

Tehran announced this month that it would no longer abide the 2015 deal’s limits on uranium enrichment. This prompted a joint statement on Tuesday from the three European powers that they had formally triggered a dispute mechanism written into the nuclear deal. If the issue of Iran’s noncompliance isn’t resolved through negotiations, Europe could reimpose sanctions on Iran.

“We do not accept the argument that Iran is entitled to reduce compliance with the JCPoA,” or nuclear deal, the countries’ foreign ministers said. While “our three countries are not joining a campaign to implement maximum pressure against Iran,” they noted that Iran’s violations “have increasingly severe and non-reversible proliferation implications.”

Europe has been drifting in this direction — albeit haltingly — for the past year. In January 2019 the European Union imposed new sanctions against Iranian intelligence over terror plots on European soil. After an attack on Saudi oil facilities last summer, the Europeans in September called for “Iran to accept negotiation on a long-term framework for its nuclear program as well as on issues related to regional security, including its missiles program and other means of delivery.”

The conventional wisdom has been that Iran is slowly escalating, and Europe isn’t pushing back hard, in case Trump isn’t re-elected and a Democratic president returns to the nuclear deal. The latest move is Europe’s most significant because it seems the continent may not be able to wait out Trump. They have 15 days to resolve the dispute, though the deadline could be extended by consensus.

It’s unlikely the formal mechanism will resolve anything, as Iran has ignored European requests to return to compliance in the past. The better option would be to join the American sanctions campaign. This may have seemed unthinkable a year ago, but European unity is showing more signs of stress.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is feeling pressure to take a tougher stance on Iran, especially after Iranian police briefly detained the British ambassador last week. Now Johnson is again calling for a new “Trump deal” with Iran. As the U.K. leaves the European Union this month, Johnson may have more flexibility to work with Trump on Iran.

Tehran’s rulers are more politically vulnerable now than at any time since the 2009 protests over stolen elections. The public is angry with the regime’s lies about its accidental downing of a civilian plane, and the economy is shrinking under U.S. sanctions. This is an ideal moment to make a diplomatic push to renegotiate the nuclear accord, and having Europe on Washington’s side would make that task more feasible.

* Guest editorial from the Wall Street Journal.


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