European diplomats have informed Iran of their intention to maintain European Union sanctions on ballistic missiles, which are scheduled to expire in October under the defunct 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, according to four sources. This move has the potential to provoke retaliatory action from Iran.
The sources provided three justifications for retaining the sanctions: Russia’s utilization of Iranian drones against Ukraine, the potential transfer of ballistic missiles from Iran to Russia, and the need to deprive Iran of the benefits of the nuclear deal due to Tehran’s violation of the agreement, although the United States violated it first.
By keeping the EU sanctions, Western countries aim to hinder Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, despite the collapse of the 2015 agreement, which former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.
The core of the agreement, signed by Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States, was to limit Iran’s nuclear program to make it more difficult for the country to obtain the materials needed for a nuclear bomb, in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
As a consequence of Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and U.S. President Joe Biden’s unsuccessful attempts to revive it, Iran is now estimated to be able to produce enough fissile material for a single bomb in approximately 12 days, compared to a year under the previous accord.
With the nuclear deal effectively defunct, Iran’s relations with Western countries have deteriorated over the past year. This has prompted Washington and its allies to seek ways to de-escalate tensions and, if possible, revive some form of nuclear limitations.
Iran denies pursuing nuclear weapons, although the West considers this a threat to Israel and the oil-exporting nations of the Gulf Arab region.
POSSIBLE IRANIAN RETALIATION
“A clear message has been conveyed to the Iranians regarding the plan to retain the sanctions, and now the question is what retaliatory measures Iran may take, if any, and how we can anticipate them,” said a Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
The EU sanctions are set to expire on October 18 under a United Nations resolution that incorporated the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The resolution “called upon” Iran not to engage in any activities related to the development of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. This phrase urged Iran to refrain from such activities but did not impose a mandatory prohibition.
Additionally, the sanctions prohibited the purchase, sale, or transfer of drones and their components with a range exceeding 300 km (186 miles) to or from Iran, without prior authorization from the United Nations Security Council. However, such permission has not been granted.
Since 2017, Iran has conducted a series of ballistic missile tests and satellite launches in violation of the resolution. In May, Iran even launched a missile with a potential range of 2,000 km.
European powers are concerned about the growing defense cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, which Western officials claim has seen Russia employing Iranian drones to attack Ukraine. There are also apprehensions that Iran might supply ballistic missiles to Russia.
It remains unclear whether the E3, consisting of Britain, France, and Germany, informed Iran of their intent to maintain the EU sanctions during their meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani on June 12 in Abu Dhabi.
EU diplomat Enrique Mora, responsible for coordinating talks on the 2015 deal, broached the subject of retaining the EU sanctions during his meeting with Bagheri Kani in Doha on June 21. However, the Iranian official declined to discuss the matter, as reported by an Iranian official speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters.
Another Iranian official dismissed the possibility of the sanctions remaining, asserting that Tehran has made significant progress in its nuclear and missile programs over the years despite Western
sanctions. The Iranian official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, stated, “Maintaining sanctions, in any form or capacity, will not impede Iran’s ongoing advancements. It serves as a reminder that the West cannot be relied upon or trusted.”
The British Foreign Ministry did not comment on whether the E3 planned to retain the sanctions or had informed Iran of any decision. However, a spokesperson for the British Foreign Ministry mentioned that the talks on June 12 in Abu Dhabi covered various concerns about Iran’s behavior, including its continued nuclear escalation.
Similar comments were made by the foreign ministries of France and Germany regarding the talks.
According to a European diplomat, Enrique Mora has initiated the legal groundwork to retain the sanctions, which would require approval from all 27 EU member states. However, the issue has not yet been discussed among all EU states.
“The lifting of sanctions was contingent on the principle that Resolution 2231 would be respected,” stated the diplomat, referring to the United Nations Security Council resolution that enshrined the 2015 agreement. “Since that has not been the case, we are in discussions with the Iranians to make it clear that we will not lift these sanctions.”
EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali mentioned that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) provides detailed commitments from the participants for the “Transition Day,” which is still several months away (October 18). She added that further information regarding EU-related aspects would be provided in due course.
Under the 2015 nuclear agreement, any party could trigger the “snapback” of all previously lifted sanctions. Most of the U.S. sanctions were reinstated after Trump withdrew from the deal.
However, three sources revealed that the E3 did not wish to invoke the “snapback” provision, primarily because it would undermine the threat conveyed in a letter from their foreign ministers to Iran last year. The letter warned that they would trigger the “snapback” mechanism if Iran enriched uranium to weapons-grade levels.
Iran has enriched uranium to a purity of 60%, and the UN nuclear watchdog has discovered traces enriched to 83.7%, which falls short of the 90% threshold considered weapons-grade. The 2015 deal capped enrichment at 3.67%.
Henry Rome, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, remarked that the EU’s decision to maintain the sanctions would be the first significant instance of the E3 deviating from the terms of the nuclear deal.
“It does not replace the provisions of the UN, but it would ensure that, at least within the powers of European governments, they are not endorsing this kind of Iranian behavior,” Rome said. “It also reflects the fact that the Security Council resolution is upholding an agreement that no longer exists in any realistic form.”