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24th Jan 2020

Nuclear arms race threat after EU rebukes Iran

  • UN monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities is a key aspect of JCPoA (Photo: IAEA Imagebank)

EU powers have triggered a process that could bring the world back to 2006, when sanctions and military threats were all that stood in the way of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

"We have ... been left with no choice, given Iran's actions, but to register today our concerns that Iran is not meeting its commitments under the JCPoA and to refer this matter to the joint commission under the dispute resolution mechanism," the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and the UK said on Tuesday (14 January).

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The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) was signed by the EU countries, the US, China, Russia, and Iran in 2015.

It envisaged lifting UN economic sanctions on Iran, first imposed in 2006, in return for curbs and inspections on its nuclear programme.

It began to unravel in 2018 when the US walked out of it and reimposed economic sanctions, prompting Iran to go back on some of its promises in return.

The deal suffered another blow when the US killed a top Iranian general on 3 January and Iran announced, two days later, it would lift all curbs on uranium enrichment to near weapons-grade.

And if the EU appeal to the "dispute resolution mechanism" fails to get Iran back on board, the original UN sanctions could snap back into place and the JCPoA would cease to be.

For their part, the EU ministers added: "We do this in good faith with the overarching objective of preserving the JCPoA".

They also said they would try to do this via "constructive diplomatic dialogue" rather than the US approach of "maximum pressure against Iran".

The dispute resolution talks involve several rounds of diplomacy that could take 60 days or more before a final outcome.

And Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, who is to coordinate the joint commission doing the work, reiterated the EU's "good faith" on Tuesday.

The EU objective in triggering the mechanism was "to find solutions and return to full compliance within the framework of this deal. It is not a matter of putting sanctions," he told MEPs in Strasbourg.

With the US already out to one side, the EU decision marked a further splintering of the international group trying to stop Iran getting the bomb.

The EU move was "deeply disappointing and extremely concerning" the Russian foreign ministry said.

And there were also signs of splintering among the EU three, after UK prime minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday morning "let's replace it [the JCPoA] with the Trump deal", referring to US president Donald Trump and his wishes to impose harsher terms on Iran.

"The British prime minister said things in contradiction with the letter signed by the [EU3] foreign ministers," Borrell noted later the same day.

Iran itself reacted mildly to the EU announcement.

Iran was "fully ready to answer any ...constructive effort" to preserve the JCPoA, its foreign ministry said.

But "if Europeans ... misuse the dispute resolution mechanism, they'll need to be prepared for the consequences," it added.

The potential collapse of the JCPoA comes amid heightened turbulence in the region since the US killing of the Iranian general.

Iran, last weekend, fired on US bases in Iraq and shot down a Ukrainian airliner by mistake, prompting street protests against the regime and violent crackdowns by security forces.

These came after Iranian police killed some 300 protesters in November amid popular anger over high fuel prices linked to US sanctions.

Trump has egged on the anti-government rallies with tweets in Persian.

And the severity of the US sanctions means that even if the EU powers and Iran resolved their dispute, the Iranian economy would get no benefit in return.

Israel is believed to be the only nuclear power in the Middle East, one of the most volatile parts of the world.

But the EU fears that if Iran resumes its clandestine weapons programme, then its main rival, Saudi Arabia, will try to acquire nuclear missiles too.

The US and Israel, prior to the JCPoA, had threatened military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities to halt the arms race.

And Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was already in power back then, returned to his old rhetoric on Tuesday.

"Iran thinks it can achieve nuclear weapons. I reiterate: Israel will not allow Iran to achieve nuclear weapons," he said, in a thinly veiled threat.

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