Iran nuclear deal is ‘on life support’

Britain, France and Germany – collectively known as the E3 – have triggered the dispute resolution mechanism in the Iran nuclear deal in order to attempt to get Iran to comply with it again.

Workers on a construction site at Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant
Image: Workers on a construction site at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant

Sky’s diplomatic editor, Dominic Waghorn, explains.

What have Britain, France and Germany done?

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal hoped to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions with a verifiable process in return for lifting sanctions.

In that treaty there is a mechanism allowing a dispute to be resolved if any of its signatories triggered it.

Why have they triggered it?

Under Donald Trump, the US walked out on the deal in 2018. European nations are still committed, but America has used extraterritorial sanctions to make it very hard for other countries to trade with Iran or help it economically.

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So Iran has felt little to no benefits. Step by step, Iran has stopped meeting some of its commitments on the deal. But Britain, France and Germany say enough is enough. Some of what Iran has done is irreversible, so it is time to act. That is why they are triggering the mechanism.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 09: U.S. President Donald Trump responds to a question from a reporter at an event for the signing of two executive orders aimed at greater governmental transparency at the White House October 9, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump answered questions on the pending impeachment inquiry and the Turkish offensive into northern Syria following the signing of the executive orders. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Image: Under Donald Trump, the US walked out on the deal in 2018

Does that mean the deal is dead?

No. It is on life support. It cannot be fully revived though until America can be persuaded to return to the deal, which is currently out of the question.

In the meantime, this latest European move effectively buys time in which to try and resuscitate it. If the dispute is not resolved, the deal will be pronounced dead.

Boris Johnson has talked about a Trump deal replacing the existing one, what does he mean?

His words seem to be at odds with his own government’s policy to stand by the nuclear deal and not replace it.

Britain is trying to persuade America to return to the deal, or alternatively persuade the Iranians to agree to a new deal congenial to President Trump. His comments may be part of that endeavour. It is not clear.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson pose as they arrive for a bilateral meeting during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/Pool
Image: Boris Johnson suggested the deal be replaced with a ‘Trump deal’

What happens next and how long have we got?

Senior officials from signatory countries will meet first, then, sometime later, ministers convene – but at each stage the process can be drawn out for weeks, if not months and years. The dispute resolution mechanism is designed to be extended indefinitely.

So this could go on forever?

In theory yes – but if Iran takes more severe action, at some point the European nations’ patience may be spent – and all sides agree the current situation is not sustainable.

What could Iran do?

Iran seems reluctant to torpedo the deal completely, but it could take action that stops short of that.

For instance it could expel inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority from the country. Under the agreement, they are there to verify compliance. That would precipitate a major crisis.

What if the deal does finally get killed off?

That’s the big question. The Trump Administration believes its policy of maximum pressure will bring the Iranians kicking and screaming back to negotiations, eventually.

Europeans do not – and there is no sign of that happening yet. The big fear is that the opposite happens. The deal dies and Iran sees no alternative to building the bomb.

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That doesn’t sound good…?

You’re right. America and Israel have vowed that they will never allow that to happen. If pressure, sanctions and diplomacy have not worked, there would only be military action left on the table.

It is not certain whether America has either the military muscle or political will to bomb all of Iran’s deeply buried nuclear facilities.

But if it tries, it would almost certainly trigger a war likely to suck in much of the rest of the region.

That is why Britain says it is crucial to keep giving diplomacy a chance.

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