High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell gives a press conference during the EU…
High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell gives a press conference during the EU foreign ministers emergency talks on Iran at the Europa building in Brussels on January 10, 2020. (Photo by Kenzo…

European powers have rejected U.S. President Donald Trump’s call for them to join him in abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with several factors pushing them to try to keep the deal alive, analysts say.

After European Union foreign ministers held an emergency meeting in Brussels Friday to discuss escalating Middle East tensions, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the 28-nation bloc will keep doing whatever it can to save the deal. Under the agreement, world powers offered Iran relief from international sanctions in return for limits on its nuclear program.

Trump had called on the JCPOA’s three EU signatories — Britain, France and Germany, all traditional U.S. allies — to “break away” from the deal in a Wednesday speech detailing his response to Iranian missile strikes on U.S. forces in Iraq the previous day. Iran launched the attacks, which caused no casualties, in retaliation for what the U.S. called a self-defensive strike that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last week.

President Donald Trump addresses the nation on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence and others looks on.

“The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear [weapon] breakout. The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China to recognize this reality,” Trump said. Iran has long insisted its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

“We want to save this deal if it’s possible,” Borrell told reporters after chairing the EU foreign ministers’ talks in Brussels. “Thanks to this deal, Iran is not a nuclear power,” he added.

Dispute resolution mechanism

Borrell also said the EU powers had not discussed triggering the JCPOA’s dispute-resolution mechanism in response to Iran’s series of breaches of JCPOA limits on nuclear activities in recent months or its latest threat to scrap restrictions on uranium enrichment, a process that can be diverted to nuclear bomb-making.

Diplomats have warned that Britain, France and Germany could activate the agreement's dispute mechanism if Iran does not return to full compliance. Such an activation could lead to a U.N. Security Council “snapback” of international sanctions on Iran, a move that Tehran has said would prompt it to quit the deal and end any remaining restraints on its nuclear program.

Trump has vowed that he will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon and refused to rule out military action to prevent such an outcome.

One factor pushing EU powers to try to keep the JCPOA alive is the fear that triggering a dispute process that leads to a U.N. sanctions snapback could push the U.S. and Iran into a war.

“Any conflict between Iran and the U.S. will happen at the EU’s doorstep, and they will be the ones who will pay a price for it, in the form of waves of refugees and radicalization that would end up on European shores,” said Ali Vaez, an International Crisis Group analyst, in a VOA Persian interview.

FILE - A handout picture released by Iran, Nov. 4, 2019, shows the atomic enrichment facilities at Nataz nuclear power plant.

EU powers also appear to be waiting for Iran to make the next move in its series of JCPOA breaches.

Tehran has yet to say when and by how much it will expand uranium enrichment, as it threatened to do after the Jan. 3 U.S. killing of Soleimani. Tehran also has said the International Atomic Energy Agency can keep monitoring its nuclear sites and the JCPOA breaches are reversible if European powers help the Iranian economy to circumvent crushing U.S. sanctions.

Hudson Institute analyst Michael Doran told VOA Persian that Iran would have to behave so brazenly in any further breaches of the JCPOA that it generates a backlash for EU powers to feel compelled to trigger the dispute mechanism.

“I think the Iranians understand that it’s not in their interests do that, so they will calibrate their nuclear steps very carefully,” he said. 

Waiting game

As EU powers wait for U.N. inspectors to verify the extent of Iran’s breaches of the JCPOA before deciding their next move, the U.S. may not exercise the same degree of patience. 

A State Department legal opinion reported by the Associated Press last month said the U.S. has a legal avenue to demand a snapback of U.N. sanctions without waiting for the JCPOA’s joint commission to conclude its dispute process. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA in 2018, saying it was not tough enough on Iran.

Trump’s Republican allies in Congress, including Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, have urged him to invoke the U.N. snapback of sanctions in response to Iran’s threat to back out of JCPOA limits on uranium enrichment. U.S. officials have not said whether they will heed that call.

Trump critics have disputed the State Department’s legal opinion, saying the U.S. can only trigger the U.N. snapback if it actively participates in the JCPOA and its dispute mechanism. 

“I've talked with the Europeans, Russians and Chinese. No one recognizes that interpretation that the U.S. has, so they don’t take this threat seriously,” Vaez said. 

EU powers also face little pressure from their domestic constituencies to walk away from the nuclear deal. 

“This is not a top priority for the European public,” Vaez said. “There are a lot of other issues they care about more, like the future of trade, the NATO alliance and 5G mobile technology.” 

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.