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Is European Unity on Iran Nuclear Deal Starting to Crack?

FILE - Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, and Helga Schmit, secretary-general of the European External Action Service, attend a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, June 28, 2019.

There are signs that cracks are beginning to appear in European unity over its backing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA, as allies come under growing pressure from the United States to abandon the agreement in the wake of Tehran’s downing of a passenger jet January 8.

The 2015 deal, signed by Iran, the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, lifted most sanctions on Iran in return for strict limits on nuclear fuel enrichment. U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018, citing concerns about Iran’s missile program.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday that the nuclear agreement could be replaced with what he called "the Trump deal."

“My point to our American friends is, look, somehow or other, we've got to stop the Iranians acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Johnson said in a BBC interview. “I think that's what the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement does, the JCPOA. But if we're going to get rid of it, then we need a replacement. Let's replace it with the Trump deal.”

European Unity On Iran Nuclear Deal May Be Cracking
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Trump has said he wants a deal that curbs Iran’s missile program as well as its nuclear activities. However, Tehran has flatly rejected entering such negotiations.

Speaking in Parliament, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said a "broader deal" would tackle issues besides Iran’s nuclear program.

“First of all, it is Iran that is threatening the JCPOA with its systematic noncompliance. The prime minister fully supports the JCPOA and bringing Iran back into full compliance,” Raab told lawmakers Tuesday.

“In fact, it's not just President Trump but also [French] President Emmanuel Macron who have argued for a broader deal with Iran, which first of all, addresses some of the defects in the JCPOA, which is not a perfect deal, but is, in our view, the best deal we've got on the table as of now. And secondly, would address the wider concerns that the U.S. and many other states, including the United Kingdom, have about Iran's broader destabilizing activities in the region,” Raab added.

This week, Richard Goldberg, a former Trump security adviser who ended his role earlier this month, said Washington could make a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain conditional on support for the United States’ stance on Iran.

Britain will face difficult decisions after it leaves the EU, said Erica Moret, chair of the Geneva International Sanctions Network.

"The U.K. will have a very difficult decision to make on a case-by-case basis when it comes to whether or not to remain aligned with European allies who tend to be more like-minded in terms of foreign policy considerations, or whether to prioritize commercial interests. And as we move forward, I think this is really going to be, the Iran case will be a very interesting litmus test for the U.K."

Iran announced this month it would ignore all restrictions on its nuclear enrichment activities, but insisted it was permitted to do so under the 2015 deal, because the U.S. was the first signatory to break the agreement.

“The nuclear deal … was written with full knowledge of the fact that it might be violated by various parties. That is why we put in mechanisms in order to make sure that if one party or several parties violated the deal, we could take measures in order to keep it alive. Iran took those measures some time ago in May of 2018 and those measures are working,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Thursday.

European signatories have formally triggered a dispute mechanism against Iran that is part of the nuclear deal. That process could end at the U.N. Security Council, with a so-called snapback of all U.N. sanctions on Iran.

Iran would then likely abandon the 2015 deal altogether, said Peter Jenkins, a former British ambassador to the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog who previously conducted negotiations with Iran.

“The Iranians would start making use of the far more advanced centrifuges that they now possess to produce enriched uranium,” Jenkins told VOA. “And what the Americans call the "breakout" time — which is the amount of time it would take them to go from zero enrichment to 90 percent enrichment, which is weapons grade — with these more advanced centrifuges would be much shorter. They could do it much more quickly than was the case a decade ago.”

Europe may still have leverage. A 2007 U.N. arms embargo on Iran is set to expire in October. Europe could threaten to use the snapback mechanism to have the arms embargo reimposed unless Iran halted nuclear enrichment.

“The obvious way to use it is to threaten to trigger the snapback mechanism shortly before October this year,” Jenkins said. “But then we get back to the fact that as much as the Iranians do want to see that embargo lifted, they don’t react well to being threatened.”

Analysts say for now, Europe is trying to buy time and could wait until after November’s U.S. presidential election before deciding the future of the nuclear deal.