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European-American negotiations over the Iran Deal: then and now

May 11, 2018

Abstract: Most of the tension is about what to do about Iran’s desire to enrich uranium.

You might think that the Europeans have been “much easier” on Iran compared to the Americans throughout the entire negotiation period that led up to the Iran Deal (JCPOA), and they pressured the U.S. beyond what it really wanted. But that would be mistaken. When Barack Obama was elected president he relaxed the requirement that Iran cease all uranium enrichment activities. President Bush had held firm to that standard and had even made stopping all enrichment as a precondition for direct U.S.-Iran negotiations.

When President Obama dropped the inflexible requirement of zero uranium enrichment, the Europeans were surprised. The French initially refused to go along, and were consistently the toughest negotiating partner on Iran. Here is a quote from Tarja Cronberg, former member of the European Parliament who chaired the Iran relations delegation for the EU:

“Obama was open to question the Bush administration’s ‘zero enrichment policy.’ France maintained its position of zero enrichment …. As the Obama administration was opening the door to diplomacy and declining suspension [of uranium enrichment] as a precondition, the Europeans resorted to tougher sanctions and suspension as a precondition” (Cronberg 2017).

The resulting Iran Deal was just as much a question of the Europeans bending (France in particular) as the United States. That is why President Macron of France was the first to come to petition Trump to save the Deal. France has credibility on the issue, and did not want a deal at any cost. France re-engaged and was looking for a way to save the deal while plugging holes. The negotiations went far, and almost succeeded.

A very insightful exchange can be found at a U.S. State Department briefing a couple of days ago about American-European negotiations in the last days of the Iran Deal. You will see that enrichment restrictions and sunsets were the main issues. They will remain the main issues going forward.

The relevant excerpt from the briefing is below. The person posing the question is a reporter, identified only as QUESTION, and the person answering it is a “senior state department official” who is identified only as SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE. “sunset” means the sunsets in the Iran Deal on uranium enrichment restrictions, and “one-year breakout” refers to the goal of allowing Iran to reach up to, but not shorter than, one year to obtain a nuclear weapon. President Trump wants that breakout time to be longer and permanently longer. Stopping enrichment altogether and dismantling its infrastructure would increase breakout time substantially.

Here’s the excerpt (U.S. State Department 2018):

QUESTION: When you say that the effort that you had in the negotiations [in recent months] with the E3 [France, Germany, UK] will not be wasted, will you be implementing any of that? Because I mean, it was the supposition that the U.S. would stay in the deal if these areas were addressed by the E3. The U.S. isn’t staying in the deal, so —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So we made a ton of progress on ICBMs, on access, on missiles writ large, on regional issues, and then we got stuck on sunsets, right? We didn’t quite make it. That work – we’re not sure. We have to – we’re starting those conversations with the E3 today, tomorrow, so I can’t – we can’t tell you exactly how it’s going to be used, but I can tell you it will be used. That work is not going to be wasted.

QUESTION: So you think they’ll go forward.

QUESTION: But if a ton of progress was made, then why not give it more time? Why take such a dramatic action that’s going to have you basically starting over from square one?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The President made very clear on January 12th his intention. If we got a supplemental agreement before May 12th, he would consider it. We didn’t get there. He said this – on January 12th, he said that was his last time waiving sanctions. He followed through on that promise.

QUESTION: And what was the sticking point? Can you just sort of tell us what didn’t work?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It was the one-year breakout.

QUESTION: The sunset program.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah.

References

Cronberg, T (2017). Nuclear Multilateralism and Iran: Inside EU Negotiations. Routledge.

U.S. State Department (2018). “Background Briefing on President Trump’s Decision to Withdraw from the JCPOA”, U.S. State Department. May 8, 2018. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/05/281959.htm

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