In Depth

US-Iran crisis: can Europe save the nuclear deal?

EU ministers convene in Brussels in an effort to salvage agreement

Boris Johnson has told Tehran that Britain remains committed to the Iran nuclear deal, despite calls by Donald Trump for a UK withdrawal from the agreement amid the ongoing diplomatic crisis in the Middle East.

During a phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani this week, the British prime minister said that the agreement - agreed in 2015 by Iran and a group of world powers including the Barack Obama-led US – “retained his backing”, The Telegraph reports. 

The deal has been under threat since Trump pulled the US out of the agreement in 2018. With Tehran now vowing to backtrack on its commitments and Washington putting pressure on European nations to withdraw too, can the EU save the nuclear deal?

What has Trump said?

On Wednesday, Trump “pulled back from the brink of war with Iran after having ordered the killing of a top Iranian general”, The Times of Israel reports. But the US president later added to the tensions with Tehran by saying “the time has come” for the other co-signatories to the Iran nuclear deal to follow the US in pulling their support.

“Nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilising behaviour,” he told reporters. “Those days are over.

“The time has come for the UK, Germany, France, Russia and China to… break away from the remnants of the Iran deal,” reports Euronews.

Trump appears to have been galvanised by news that Iran has scrapped limits imposed on its nuclear enrichment by the agreement and has “already breached many of the restrictions under the deal”, according to Al Jazeera.

With the US calling for the dissolution of the deal and Iran apparently violating its terms, European leaders have been left in an “awkward position”, the broadcaster reports.

What is Europe doing in response?

According to CNBC, the EU has “attracted criticism for its slow response to the crisis” that erupted last week, with many EU countries making statements some days after the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani.

However, with the Iran deal on the brink of collapse, European lawmakers have sprung into action, with a number of countries expressing their public support for the agreement.

On Thursday a French foreign ministry spokesperson told reporters that “France remains committed to the framework of the Vienna Iran nuclear accord” and “continues to work with the other parties” involved in the deal.

The same day, Prime Minister Johnson “underlined the UK’s continued commitment” to the deal in a conversation with President Rouhani, according to a Downing Street spokesperson, the BBC reports.

A spokesperson for the German government also claimed its “goal remains to save the agreement”, and earlier this week European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters: “From a European viewpoint, it is important for Iran to return to the nuclear deal. We have to convince Iran that it’s also in its own interest.”

The EU has arranged a rare emergency meeting of its foreign ministers for Friday afternoon, where the next steps are due to be discussed, according to Euronews.

Can they save the deal?

In the current chaotic climate, it’s anybody’s guess.

Neil Dwane, global strategist at Allianz Global Investors, told CNBC: “I think [the deal] is dead in the water… [Iran will] say one thing with one hand and move on.”

Holger Schmieding, chief economist at investment bank Berenberg, agreed. He claimed that the accord “is largely dead as Iran feels no longer bound by it”. 

He added: “As Trump does not listen to allies, Europe’s role is very limited in the region. Europe is mostly a bystander, having to grapple with the potential fallout of instability in the region without being able and willing to influence events much.” 

But, as the BBC notes, “nobody other than President Trump wants to declare the agreement dead”, and a desperate salvage mission by the EU could see it saved, especially as “accepting the deal’s demise might make a difficult situation even worse”.

The broadcaster also notes that if the deal does fall apart, there may be scope for the EU to renegotiate a new deal without the input of the US.

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