The EU must change its course if it really wants to prevent a nuclear Iran

written by Julian Pfleging, European Horizons at Sciences Po Paris

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(Lausanne, April 2, 2015)

Executive Summary

The conclusion of the JCPOA in 2015 was undoubtedly one of the most significant diplomatic achievements of the EU. However, pride in past achievements should not blur one’s vision of the present. The EU should identify its stakes and interests in the conflict about the Iranian nuclear program and promote them more assertively. It is time for the EU to acknowledge the de facto failure of the JCPOA, work together with the incoming U.S. administration to renegotiate the JCPOA, fix its flaws, and reassess the EU’s grand strategy towards Iran.


Undoubtedly, the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 marked a significant success for EU foreign policy. The agreement between Iran, the P5+1, and the EU aims to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by blocking both uranium and heavy water pathways through restrictions and inspections. In 2003, the E3 initially started the 12-year lasting negotiations after the revelation of a secret Iranian military nuclear program that violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

While formally still in place, the agreement is not fulfilling its purpose anymore. The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA on 8 May 2018 and imposed heavy sanctions against Iran. Furthermore, the U.S. introduced extraterritorial sanctions targeting non-US individuals and companies engaging in trade with certain Iranian actors.[1] These sanctions caused reluctance towards trade with Iran and hampered the expected economic benefits of the JCPOA for Tehran despite the EU’s attempt to protect EU-Iran trade through the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX). In response, Iran ceased to comply with its obligations under the JCPOA in various areas. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed in November 2019 that Iran has resumed enriching uranium at the Fordow site.[2] This marked another breach of the agreement after Iran had installed more efficient centrifuges in the Natanz facility, exceeded the permitted amount of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, surpassed the permitted degree of enrichment, and unauthorizedly lifted restrictions in nuclear-related Research and Development (R&D).[3] In a joint statement, the Foreign Ministers of the E3 and former HR/VP Mogherini declared Iran’s action to be “inconsistent with the JCPoA’s clear provisions” and expressed concern regarding the “regrettable acceleration of Iran’s disengagement from commitments under the JCPOA.”[4] Following the assassination of General Soleimani, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif announced on 5 January 2020 the final breach, declaring that the nuclear program “no longer faces any operational restrictions” while continuing to cooperate with the IAEA and signaling the possibility of returning to compliance if Iranian demands were met.[5]

The E3 (in January 2020) and Tehran (in July 2020) both triggered the Dispute Resolution Mechanism under paragraph 36 of the JCPOA, mutually accusing another of violating the agreement. The E3, however, decided not to risk the reintroduction of UN sanctions under UN Security Council resolution 2231 (“snapback”-sanctions). After discussions between the parties, the mechanism was suspended without Iran returning to its obligations.

The current situation is dangerous, as Iran is only partially in compliance with the JCPOA and shortens its breakout time. In November 2020, the IAEA confirmed that Iran stores more than 12 times the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the JCPOA and described the Iranian explanation for uranium traces at an undeclared site as “not credible”.[6]Iranian uranium enrichment has surpassed pre-JCPOA levels.[7] Moreover, the Iranian parliament has recently approved a bill to ramp up uranium enrichment even further.[8]

However, the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election open a window of opportunity for the EU. President-elect Biden already expressed his willingness to re-engage with Tehran based on the JCPOA as a “starting point”, taking into account previously neglected issues as “Iran’s human rights abuses, support for terrorism and ballistic missiles” and “destabilizing activities”.[9] The gap between EU and U.S. interests and strategy will be significantly narrower than under the Trump administration.

Main issues at stake for the EU

The prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon has been the primary goal of European diplomats during the negotiations that led to the JCPOA. This objective remains a vital security interest of the EU as it is closely intertwined with the MENA region’s security, stability, and economic situation. Instability and crises in its neighborhood have direct implications for the EU.

Saudi-Arabia and Egypt have long announced their intention to pursue nuclear capability if Iran would reach nuclear capability, thereby credibly backing up fears of a new arms race and nuclear proliferation in the MENA region.[10]Additionally, further steps towards an Iranian nuclear bomb would increase the probability of an Israeli preemptive strike under the Begin Doctrine.[11] The Iranian leadership has blamed the Israeli Mossad for the recent assassination of its leading nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which is likely to increase tensions in the near future further.[12]

A nuclear Iran would likely pursue its regional goals in the Middle East more aggressively since nuclear capability would provide Iran with a stark deterrent against retaliation. This could include increased terrorist attacks against U.S., Saudi Arabian, and Israeli targets by Iranian proxies like Hezbollah and an even more substantial Iranian involvement in states like Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.[13] The stabilization of its neighborhood is a vital interest of the EU and the key objective of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). However, a nuclear Iran or the perception of it becoming a real threat would destabilize the MENA region and is therefore not compatible with EU interests. The externalities of the destabilization of its neighborhood would pose various security challenges for the EU, including new migration movements towards Europe and terrorist threats. Additionally, a nuclear breakout of Iran would significantly undermine the NPT and the international security architecture.

Hence, it is clear that the EU has high stakes in the conflict about Iran’s nuclear program and that the EU’s interest lies in ensuring that Iran cannot obtain nuclear capability in the foreseeable future. In May 2020, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the Commission (HR/VP) Borrell and the E3 Foreign Ministers confirmed their commitment to upholding the JCPOA and described it as “a key achievement of the global non-proliferation architecture and currently the best and only way to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”[14]

Recent developments, however, raise serious doubts about the validity of this statement. Given the situation described above, the JCPOA is currently not apt to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is not fully complying with the JCPOA and shortens its breakout time, which creates a dangerous situation that runs against EU interests.

However, merely reinstating the JCPOA does not sufficiently guarantee a comprehensive resolution of the issue. It is necessary to widen the scope and consider a longer timeframe. Even if wholly implemented, the JCPOA’s does not ensure the prevention of a nuclear Iran in the long term.

The main reason for this is the temporary nature of the nuclear restrictions. Arts. 1–12 of the JCPOA provide that the nuclear restrictions expire in several steps, with all nuclear restrictions being terminated in 2031.[15] As Iran is allowed to extend its nuclear program in the meantime, the breakout time would be “near zero” in only 11 years from now, as former U.S. President Obama admitted.[16] While iii. of the Preamble of the JCPOA states that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons”, Iran’s previous violation of the NPT shows that there is little reason to trust Tehran in this regard.

Another reason why the JCPOA may not ensure the prevention of a nuclear Iran is the lack of full disclosure of past Iranian military nuclear activities, which provides the foundation of estimating Iran’s breakout time. However, this vital element was left out in the JCPOA as a concession to Tehran. Consequently, uncertainty regarding the Iranian progress and fears of possible additional secret facilities remain. Accordingly, IAEA Director General Amano stated after the conclusion of the JCPOA that “we don’t know whether they have undeclared activities or something else. We don’t know what they did in the past. So, we know a part of their activities, but we cannot tell we know all their activities. And that is why we cannot say that all the activities in Iran is in peaceful purposes.”[17] This uncertainty is particularly alarming given Iran’s past deception and denial efforts regarding its nuclear program. In 2005, Rohani openly stated his strategy of using the negotiations to gain time and divide Western powers for the benefit of the advancement of the Iranian nuclear program.[18]

Policy recommendations

From the analysis of the current situation and the issues at stake for the EU follows a three-step policy recommendation.

First, the EU should acknowledge that the JCPOA is currently not delivering. It must realize that the current EU strategy of upholding the JCPOA while Iran is not complying with its provisions under the JCPOA does not ensure the prevention of a nuclear Iran and has created a dangerous situation. While it was strategically wise to keep the JCPOA alive until the dusk of the current U.S. administration, it is now in the EU’s very interest to regain more control on the course of events. Therefore, the EU must adapt its strategy to recent developments to increase the probability of reaching its objectives.

In a second step, the EU must go beyond the mere reimplementation of the JCPOA in its original form. While a return of the JCPOA would an improvement of the status quo, its mere reinstalment would be short-sighted for the reasons given above. Hence, the EU should quickly engage in discussions with the incoming U.S. administration once it takes office in January 2021 and seize this window of opportunity to improve the strained transatlantic relations. A robust transatlantic coalition with harmonized interests should be built to renegotiate the JCPOA. The negotiations’ objective must be an agreement that is not a bet on changing Iranian behavior in the future, but one that reliably prevents a nuclear Iran, not only in the short but in the long-term. To guarantee this, the nuclear restrictions must be valid for a more extended period, and all past military nuclear activities must be disclosed in order to calculate the breakout time accurately. Additionally, Iran’s current high level of uranium enrichment in violation of the JCPOA must be rolled back as a first confidence-building measure. A comprehensive agreement must also address Iran’s destabilizing foreign policy in the MENA region, its human rights violations, and its ballistic missile program.

Given the importance of the nuclear program for Iran, this will not be an easy task, but a coalition of the EU, the U.S., and states of the MENA region, including Israel, Saudi-Arabi, Bahrain, and the UAE, is equipped with enough carrots and sticks to pressure Tehran back to the negotiation table and to withstand likely opposition from Moscow and Beijing. In this phase, the EU must show greater willingness to use its economic leverage against Tehran than it has in the past.

Thirdly, the EU should reassess its relationship with Iran. Given the incompatibility of Iran’s human rights record, its sponsoring of and active involvement in terrorism (including on European soil), and its destabilizing foreign policy with the values and objectives of the EU laid out in Arts. 2 and 3 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the EU should adjust its policies towards Iran. Recent Iranian human rights violations include the suppression of anti-government protests in late 2019, in which Iranian security forces killed around 1,500 protestors, the execution of wrestler Navid Afkari, and the imprisonments researcher Fariba Adelkhah and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.[19] While the EU criticized Tehran for the violent suppression of the 2019 protests, it did not draw political consequences.[20] Iran’s systematic human rights violations should have a more substantial impact on EU policymaking towards Tehran. Instead of acting “as protective shields” for its “Iranian partners” as former German Foreign Minister Fischer once described its role, the EU should start to treat Iran as the hostile actor it is towards the norms, interests, and values of the EU. [21] The first step in this direction would be an increase in the EU’s cooperation with the democratic civil society in Iran.

Julian Pfleging is pursuing a dual master’s degree in European Affairs at Sciences Po Paris and Freie Universität Berlin. His research interests include European and German foreign policy in the MENA region, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and Transatlantic Relations. Previously, he studied at Leipzig University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and holds a degree in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies.

[1] Rezaei, Farhad (2019): Iran’s Foreign Policy After the Nuclear Agreement. Politics of Normalizers and Traditionalists. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 69.

[2] IAEA Board of Governors (2019): Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231, 11 November,

[3] Der Spiegel (2019): Internationale Atomenergiebehörde: Iran hat leistungsstärkere Zentrifugen installiert, 9 November,

[4] Auswärtiges Amt (2019): Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom and the EU High Representative, 11 November,

[5] Davenport, Kelsey; Masterson, Julia (2020): Iran Announces New Nuclear Deal Breach. P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert, 9 January, Arms Control Association,

[6] BBC (2020): Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile 12 times limit, says IAEA, 12 November,

[7] Middle East Monitor (2020): Official: Iran’s enriched uranium production at pre-deal level, 7 September,

[8] Middle East Monitor (2020): Iran parliament approves bill on uranium enrichment, 3 November,

[9] Biden, Joe (2020): There’s a smarter way to be tough on Iran, 13 September, CNN,

[10] Landau, Emily (2012): When Neorealism meets the Middle East: Iran’s Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons in (Regional) Context, Strategic Assessment, Vol. 15, №3, October, p. 34.

[11] Dershowitz, Alan (2015): The Case Against the Iran Deal: How Can We Stop Iran from Getting Nukes?, New York: Rosetta Books, p. 72–75.

[12] BBC (2020): Mohsen Fakhrizadeh: Iran blames Israel for killing top scientist, 28 November,

[13] Kahl, Colin H. (2012): One Step Too Far. In: Kahl, Colin H.; Waltz, Kenneth: Iran and the Bomb: Would a Nuclear Iran Make the Middle East More Secure? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 91, №5, September/October, p. 158.

[14] Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires Étrangères (2020): JCPOA — Joint statement by spokespersons of the Foreign Ministries of France, Germany, the United Kingdom and of the High Representative of the European Union, 30 May,

[15] The arms embargo against Iran under UN Security Council resolution 2231 Annex B, Paragraph 5, has already expired in October 2020.

[16] Lederman, Josh (2015): Obama admits: Deal will give Iran ‘Near Zero’ Breakout Time in 13 Years, The Times of Israel, 7 April,

[17] Tobey, William (2015): Can a U.S. Deal Force Iran to Fess Up to the Military Dimensions of Its Nuke Program?, Foreign Policy, 18 June,

[18] Wahdat-Hagh, Wahied (2018): Der iranisch-islamistische Totalitarismus. Eine Dokumentation von Medienanalysen und Übersetzungen aus der persischen Sprache. Göttingen: Cuvillier Verlag, p. 290–292.

[19] Reuters (2019): Special Report: Iran’s leader ordered crackdown on unrest — ‘Do whatever it takes to end it’,

[20] Council of the EU (2019): Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the EU on the Recent Protests in Iran,

[21] Die Bundesregierung (2004): Rede des Bundesministers des Auswärtigen, Joschka Fischer, zur Eröffnung der Botschafterkonferenz, 6 September,

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