Berlin (CNSNews.com) – Russia and China have responded negatively to Tuesday’s decision by their European partners in the Iran nuclear deal to trigger a formal dispute resolution process in response to Tehran’s actions in violation of the 2015 agreement.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, reacted by warning that European troops in the region could pay a price.
“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Rouhani said in a televised speech, without elaboration.
Russia’s foreign ministry suggested the move by France, Germany and Britain (“the E.U.3”) could exacerbate existing U.S.-Iran tensions.
“We do not rule out that the thoughtless actions of the Europeans could lead to a new escalation around the Iranian nuclear accord,” it said in a statement.
Negotiated during the Obama administration, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) placed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of U.S. and U.N. sanctions. It has been steadily crumbling since President Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and restored U.S. sanctions.
The E.U. scrambled to find a workaround to the reimposed sanctions, but with little success. Iran in response gradually moved away from compliance, in five distinct steps between last May and last week’s fifth and “final” step.
That in turn prompted the three European parties to initiate the JCPOA’s so-called “Dispute Resolution Mechanism (DRM). The foreign ministers from Germany, France and Britain said that despite fears of further escalation in the region, Iran’s actions had left them with “no choice.”
“Instead of reversing course, Iran has chosen to further reduce compliance with the JCPOA,” they said in a joint statement. As Iran itself had never tried to trigger the DRM, it had no legal grounds to cease adhering to the deal, they argued.
China said it “regretted” the decision, which foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said “will not help solve the issues or ease current tensions.”
At a press briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, Geng called the U.S. withdrawal from the deal the “root cause of current tensions.”
Last week, Iran fired ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. troops, in response to a U.S. airstrike that killed Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani on January 3.
Hours after the missile attack, Iranian forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet minutes after takeoff in Tehran, killing all 127 passengers and crew.
In their announcement, the E.U.3 stressed that their objective was not to pressure Iran but to preserve the deal.
“Our three countries are not joining a campaign to implement maximum pressure against Iran,” the statement explained. “Our hope is to bring Iran back into full compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA.”
If the DRM process fails, previous U.N. sanctions on Iran could be restored.
The DRM launches a 30-day negotiation period between the remaining parties to the JCPOA (Iran, Russia, China, Germany, France, and Britain) and the E.U.
If no resolution can be reached, the U.N. Security Council should then be formally notified of Iran’s noncompliance.
The UNSC would then vote on whether to continue Iran’s relief from U.N. sanctions – a decision that could be vetoed by any of the five permanent members.
Armand Cucciniello, a specialist in Middle East affairs and former U.S. diplomat who advises the U.S. military, said the deal’s fate had been as good as sealed once Trump withdrew in May 2018, because international financial systems are highly dependent on the United States.
“That was the beginning of the end, despite the Europeans' best efforts to find alternative banking methods,” he said.
“What will be interesting to watch is Russia and China’s position on the JCPOA, and if both or either try to work something out with Iran that is mutually beneficial,” he said. “But even then, U.S. sanctions may trip them up, too.”
Although Britain joined its E.U. partners in the DRM decision, Prime Minister Boris Johnson indicated – not for the first time – that he would prefer a new deal.
“If we’re going to get rid of it, let’s replace it, and let’s replace it with the Trump deal – that’s what we need to see. And I think that would be a great way forward,” he told the BBC on Tuesday.
“President Trump is a great dealmaker, by his own account and many others," Johnson added. “Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead.”
Trump’s major objections to the JCPOA included restrictions on verification inspections on suspect military sites, “sunset clauses” which allowed various restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment program to fall away after eight, 10 and 15 years, and the fact the deal did not require Iran to stop its ballistic missile program.