The Ultimatum Europe's Last Ditch Effort to Save Iran Deal

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and he has until May 12 to make a decision. If he follows through, it could mean war in the Middle East. But the Europeans are trying to prevent it. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron
Tom Brenner / The New York Times / laif

U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron

The weather forecast calls for partly cloudy skies on May 12 in Washington, D.C. The embassies of European Union member states will be welcoming the public for Open House Day and one can assume that U.S. President Donald Trump will be working in the Oval Office. In the morning, he will no doubt fire off a couple of tweets like "The Iran nuclear deal is a terrible one for the United States and the world." And at some point on this day, his secretary of state and his national security adviser will likely walk into the room and ask him the decisive question: Mr. President, are you going to sign? Yes or no?

If Trump signs, the world will breathe a sigh of relief. It would mean that the U.S. president has once again prolonged the suspension of nuclear program-related sanctions against Iran for another 120 days. It would mean that the deal with Iran is still alive.

But that is not the most likely scenario.

It is more likely that the president won't simply sign the extension. After all, he threatened as much four months ago, when he said: "Either fix the deal's disastrous flaws, or the United States will withdraw." As such, the question now is whether Trump will accept a last-minute compromise and what such a compromise might look like.

The 159-page document has a rather unwieldy name: Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. But it is based on a simple idea: If Iran finally stops developing the means to build a nuclear weapon, then the world will resume doing business with the country. As such, if Trump reimposes sanctions, the nuclear deal would be badly crippled, and it seems likely that the Iranians would see it as a breach, leading to Tehran's withdrawal. Iran may then resume enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels and working towards building a nuclear weapon. That would mark the beginning of the next crisis in the Middle East. It would mean the victory of national egotism over diplomacy and would represent a difficult-to-heal rift between the United States and Europe.

Or, as former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel says: "If we aren't careful, we could be facing another Thirty Years' War in the Middle East."

Those are the stakes.

With just days to go before Trump's decision, it remains unclear whether the crisis can be avoided. But to understand how the U.S. president might ultimately decide, it helps to go back to Jan. 12 of this year.

Two hours before Trump publicly threatened that day that he was considering killing the nuclear deal with Iran, a small group of top European diplomats was notified of his decision. Brian Hook, a senior policy advisor in the State Department, called up European officials and read them the three-page statement from the president over the telephone. Because one sentence pertaining to the Europeans was erroneous, Hook had it removed from the statement. The group on the other side of the Atlantic was pleased about the removal because it showed that Hook, their State Department contact, had influence in the White House. They were talking to the right guy. But it was just a minor victory. There was no longer anything they could do to change the nature of Trump's ultimatum.

A Particularly Bitter Moment

It was a particularly bitter moment for the Europeans. The nuclear deal had long been seen as a crowning achievement of EU diplomacy. It was regarded as proof positive that a problem like the Iranian nuclear threat could more effectively be solved through discussion and economic incentives than through military strikes and punitive actions. The world celebrated the deal -- and then Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. The same man who has blasted the agreement as "terrible," as "a catastrophe," as "insane" and "horrendous."

The task facing the Europeans became clear on Jan. 12. They had just four months to make improvements to the "worst deal ever" and to change Trump's mind.

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In addition to the U.S., Russia and China, the signatories to the Iran deal include France, Britain, Germany and the EU. For the most part, the task of saving the deal fell to four top diplomats: one each from Britain and France and two from Germany. The two from Germany are Helga Schmid, who represents the EU, and Andreas Michaelis, who was recently appointed state secretary in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

Since the beginning of the year, European-American negotiating groups have been meeting regularly in London, Paris, Berlin and Washington and there have been conference calls on an almost daily basis. Both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have sought to change the president's mind during visits to the U.S. capital. It quickly became apparent that Trump greatly enjoys the attention. But it remains unclear if it has had an effect.

Trump's statement in January essentially provided the Europeans with a list of things they had to work on. They were to agree to "new multilateral sanctions if Iran develops or tests long-range missiles, thwarts inspections, or makes progress toward a nuclear weapon." Furthermore, Trump demanded "stronger steps with us to confront Iran's other malign activities" -- including the funding of militias in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

Unusually Laborious

In several rounds of talks with Hook from the State Department, European negotiators tried to address Trump's concerns without antagonizing Tehran. One of them described the task as "walking on a razor blade." Success, he said, was only possible "if we don't tip to the left toward the USA or tip to the right toward Iran."

Convergence between the Europeans and the Americans proved unusually laborious, even at the working level, as interviews with those involved have revealed. Once the most important issues had been identified on the basis of Trump's statement, each side wrote up their views on those issues separately. Finding agreement on joint formulations proved challenging and took time.

There is now one main document along with two subsidiary papers. One of them includes possible new sanctions against the Iranian missile program while the other focuses on joint action against Iranian influence in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

It is a tightrope walk. The Europeans are trying to preserve the deal by making additions to it. It is an approach designed to satisfy the Americans without scaring off the Iranians. But with just one week to go before the expiration of Trump's ultimatum, there are two important problems that still haven't been solved.

The first problem is the U.S. demand that Iran's "breakout time" be kept to at least 12 months. The breakout time is the amount of time a country needs to assemble a nuclear weapon. Currently, Iran's breakout time is 15 months. But because the deal allows Iran to begin slowly ratcheting up their nuclear program again starting in 2025, that time interval could shrink. That is something the Americans would like to prevent.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving a presentation on the Iranian nuclear program on Monday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving a presentation on the Iranian nuclear program on Monday.

The Europeans, however, point out that the Iranians have pledged to an "exclusively peaceful" use of nuclear energy. It says as much in the agreement's preface. As such, they feel that the concerns harbored by Washington are excessive.

Establishing a concrete breakout time as the Trump administration is demanding would be a significant change to an existing deal -- making it extremely challenging. Iran, after all, has categorically declared that the deal is "non-negotiable."

Skeptical of the Pact

The second problem has to do with a European demand. They want the U.S. to issue a clear commitment to the nuclear agreement. From the European perspective, such a statement is important to bolster Iranian moderates who have thrown their support behind the deal. Iranian hardliners, after all, are just as skeptical of the pact as Trump is.

"The pressure is mounting," says a senior EU official. "There are forces in Iran ... who claim that there is a feeling that the Iranian side delivered and that our side didn't deliver."

The Iranian government is complaining that the country has not been able to enjoy the benefits of the deal because the U.S. is stoking doubts about its longevity and stability. Two weeks ago, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told American broadcaster CBS: "President Trump has made it very clear that it is trying to dissuade our economic partners from engaging with Iran and that's a clear violation of the deal."

For Iran, the results of the deal have thus far been mixed. Although the sanctions imposed on the country due to illegal weapons sales and Tehran's ongoing support of terrorist groups remain in place, the Iranian economy has managed to recover somewhat since JCPOA entered force in January 2016. Iranian money frozen in accounts held abroad was finally able to flow back into the country while oil exports doubled. The French energy company Total joined a Chinese company in signing a deal for the exploitation of gigantic natural gas reserves.

But despite all that, many Iranian hopes have gone unfulfilled. One example is Tehran's planned purchase of hundreds of planes from Boeing and Airbus. Once the nuclear sanctions were lifted, the two companies received huge orders from Iran. But because of uncertainty on the part of both the companies and the banks involved as to whether such deliveries might violate existing or future sanctions, deliveries have been stalled. In the meantime, Iran has begun looking to Russia to supply its airplane needs.

Furthermore, the country remains economically weak, which can be seen in the dramatic collapse in the value of its currency. On April 9, Iranians had to pay 61,000 rials for a single U.S. dollar, which was more than a third higher than the official exchange rate. The government responded by fixing the exchange rate and arresting anyone who dared to deviate from it. Many currency exchange offices in the capital closed their doors for several days. That, too, helps explain the acrimoniousness of Iran's recent comments on the nuclear deal.

A Final Break with the West

For months, the Iranians seemed largely unbothered by Trump's attacks on the deal, relying on continued cooperation with Europe should America withdraw. That, though, is now over. President Hassan Rouhani said recently that he has "made plans for all scenarios." The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said recently that the country could restart uranium enrichment "within four days." And the newspaper Javan, a mouthpiece for the Revolutionary Guard, is calling for a "nuclear reversal."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani together with the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, during a 2015 visit to the Bushehr nuclear power plant.
Mohammad Berno / AP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani together with the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, during a 2015 visit to the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

Rouhani is actually considered to be a reformer in the Iranian political landscape, but the poor economic situation has put him under pressure. He had promised, after all, that limiting the country's nuclear program would bring immediate and significant economic improvement.

"Rouhani and his supporters don't want the bomb because they know it would represent a final break with the West and that isolation would continue to weaken Iran economically," says Sigmar Gabriel, who had been deeply involved in the Iran negotiations until he was replaced as German foreign minister in March. "They also see the danger of a military strike from the Israelis or the Americans." On the other side, though, there are "strong powers who want the bomb, not to use it but to roll back the influence of Saudi Arabia and others in the region."

Internationally, though, opponents of the deal aren't only to be found in Washington: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are likewise opposed to the deal. The two were once bitter adversaries, but when it comes to their rejection of the nuclear deal and their deep mistrust of Iran, they are in agreement.

The crown prince, who wields tremendous power in the kingdom, which is competing with Iran for primacy in the Middle East, recently took a trip through the United States. In interviews, he described Iran as an evil empire and said that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is "worse than Hitler." Netanyahu shares that view and has long been warning of the dangers posed by Iran and its nuclear program. He has been opposed to the nuclear deal from the very beginning. On Monday of this week, he once again tried to convince the world that his skepticism is warranted. In a television appearance, he stood in front of what he said was Iran's "atomic archive," a bookshelf full of folders and a display case containing 183 CDs of information. All of the material is top secret and was allegedly brought to Israel from Iran by the Mossad in recent weeks in the course of a spectacular operation.

Netanyahu presented the material in an attempt to prove that the Iranian nuclear program was entirely focused on building a bomb. "Iran lied," Netanyahu said. But the documents provide no insight into the country's current nuclear activities. As impressive as the Mossad operation might be, the documents presented by the Israeli prime minister tell an old story. And most experts are already convinced that Iran once aspired to build atomic weapons. That's why the nuclear deal was negotiated in the first place.

A Worst-Case Scenario

The question now is whether the Europeans will be able to make headway against Netanyahu's emotional presentation with their rather more sober arguments. And who Trump will ultimately believe.

The experts are unified in their belief that the deal works. Helga Schmid, secretary general of the European External Action Service and a key player in deal's negotiation, says: "I hope that the U.S. continues to stand behind the deal. The JCPOA is not based on assumptions of good faith or trust. It is based on concrete commitments, verification mechanisms and a very strict long-term monitoring done by the IAEA."

Inspectors from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency regularly confirm that Iran is continuing to fulfill its obligations under the agreement. Even the U.S. Department of State found nothing in a recently released report on the Iran deal to suggest that Tehran was in violation.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn says: "Mr. Trump should not destroy the nuclear deal. After all, it is Europe that is within range of Iranian missiles." Sigmar Gabriel agrees, saying: "We have to do everything we can to present the following worst-case scenario: The USA backs out of the JCPOA and nobody invests in Iran anymore. That puts the Rouhani government under pressure and he restarts the nuclear program. That, in turn, could cause the Israelis and Americans to react with a military strike."

Until a few weeks ago, the Europeans still had a remnant of hope that Donald Trump might throw his support behind the deal after all. But then he replaced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. "Tillerson was always convinced that the deal could be saved," Gabriel said. "For him, the vital prerequisite was that the Europeans too would continue to confront Iran on the other critical issues."

But Tillerson is now gone and his successor Mike Pompeo is considered a hardliner and, most importantly, as an absolute Trump loyalist.

A 'Very Personal Approach'

Both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron recently made one last effort to convince the U.S. president of the validity of the European position. The Iran deal was one of the central issues on the agenda of Macron's recent state visit to Washington at the end of April. Speaking to a small group of journalists during the visit, Macron said that it makes him "very sad" when the current administration refers to a treaty negotiated by its predecessor as a "catastrophe" or "nightmare." That is why he tried to exert influence on Trump by way of a personal relationship. With Trump, he said, his circle of advisers is not decisive. He is, Macron said, "headstrong," adding that politics for the U.S. president comes out of a "very personal approach."

Macron said that he began trying back in September to convince Trump to stick to the JCPOA and expand it. At the time, the French president said, Trump flatly rejected the proposal. So Macron "changed the choreography," as he puts it, to accommodate Trump. That means the trans-Atlantic partners could act as though they were getting rid of the deal but would in fact simply expand and repackage it. That is why Macron spoke of a "new deal" during his visit to Washington.

The French president hopes that his charm offensive will bear fruit, but he didn't sound convinced following the visit. The worst scenario, Macron told DER SPIEGEL, would be if Trump were to simply withdraw from the deal. "That would mean opening Pandora's box, it could mean war." But, he continued: "I don't believe that Donald Trump wants war."

But the Europeans have nevertheless already begun preparing for the end of the treaty. They are considering, for example, how their companies could be protected from the consequences of new U.S. sanctions. The European Investment Bank could play a role in that effort by backing deals with Iran. "We are working on a number of proposals that could protect European companies and operators," says a senior EU official.

European negotiators, though, admit that such programs likely wouldn't have much effect. But they are important for another reason. They are a symbolic gesture to Iran that Europe is prepared to continue investing in the country. And that the deal would not immediately die without the U.S.

The Iranian government is also developing plans for after May 12. Foad Izadi, who teaches American Studies at the University of Tehran and is an adviser to a number of Iranian government ministries, believes that a "soft withdrawal" is the most likely scenario. That scenario envisions Trump refusing to sign the deal's extension on May 12 but not immediately reimposing sanctions so as to give the Europeans time to convince Iran to make further concessions. In such a case, Izadi believes, Iran would withdraw from the deal.

That, says Izadi, means that Europe's role is a vital one. "Ultimately, It's up to you how much you give in to the pressure from America and what this deal is worth to you," he says.

Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei uttered a sentence a few days ago that could be understood as a warning. "We must certainly be wise, smart and resolute in our relations with the world," he said. "But we should also know that the world is not merely America and several European countries."

By Julia Amalia Heyer, Susanne Koelbl, Peter Müller, Dietmar Pieper and Christoph Schult


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