AP Analysis: Europe squeezed in Iran-U.S. nuclear deal dispute

Jon Gambrell
Associated Press

Tehran, Iran — When it comes to saving Iran’s nuclear deal, Europe finds itself in the impossible situation of trying to salvage an accord unraveling because of the maximalist U.S. sanctions campaign.

Since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord over a year ago, a slow fuse has burned through Iran. At first, it appeared Iranian officials thought they might be able to wait out Trump.

That talk faded as U.S. sanctions choked off Iran’s vital crude oil sales abroad and then began targeting its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and officials including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Soon, the talk changed to “strategic action” and making threats to the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial global oil supply point.

That action has seen Iran break the limit put on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium under its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. President Hassan Rouhani says that starting Sunday, Iran will begin enriching uranium to “any level we think is necessary and we need.”

Those steps combined could see Iran narrow the one-year window it needs to have enough material ready to potentially build a nuclear weapon.

To Iran, the only people who now can prevent further escalation in the crisis are in Europe. Among the parties to the deal are Britain, France and Germany, while the European Union also has aided in the diplomacy.

In public comments, it is Europe that Iran keeps targeting.

The “actions of the Europeans have not been enough, so the Islamic Republic will move ahead with its plans as it has previously announced,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Monday.

Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, said Thursday that Europe “called on Iran to reverse these steps and to refrain from further measures that would undermine the nuclear agreement.”

But what, if anything, the Europeans can offer remains in question. They’ve pointed to INSTEX, a trading vehicle that allows European and Iranian firms to send goods abroad and be paid locally to avoid American sanctions. However, questions remain if Iran will set up a matching system itself to facilitate the trade.

For Iran, being able to sell oil through INSTEX remains its most important concern.

“Without (an) oil deal, it’s very clear INSTEX will not work,” Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh told Bloomberg this week. However, Iran may have been able to export some oil to China last week despite sanctions.

The U.S. appears poised to potentially sanction INSTEX if it moves outside the bounds of food and medicine, which America still allows to be sold into Iran. And even if it did, there’s no sign that any major company would be willing to risk U.S. sanctions in the name of European diplomacy, which the Trump administration seems all too happy to point out.