Iranians look for hope in Europe’s promises
US determination to leave behind 2015 nuclear deal and pursue a harder line leaves Islamic Republic with no easy options.
Tehran, Iran – On Monday, Mike Pompeo is expected to chart a new course for the Trump administration’s Iran policy after it pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal earlier this month.
The new US secretary of state is likely to propose fresh talks with Iran for a more comprehensive agreement – in keeping with US President Donald Trump’s stance – to replace the existing Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
That will mean including provisions in the deal to curb Iran’s ballistic missile programme and mechanisms to force Iran to pull back support for its allies in the Middle East and disengage from the region’s conflicts.
But as far as the Islamic Republic is concerned, there is nothing to renegotiate.
A large picture displayed at the entrance to the old American embassy was perhaps the best illustration of how many Iranians feel about the nuclear deal these days, regardless of whether they supported it or not.
It features a lookalike of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, at a negotiating table with an American man.
Above the table, it is business as usual. The American looks like a diplomat wearing a suit.
However, if you look under the table, you can see the man is wearing combat gear and army boots, pointing a sawed-off shotgun at the Iranian across the table.
The message the image conveys is simple: the United States cannot be trusted.
Since Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, Iranians have placed their hopes in the hands of European allies. Now, they are losing hope in them as well.
The European Union’s (EU) energy commissioner has been coming to Iran for years now, having forged close working relationships with Iranian officials.
But this may be Miguel Arias Canete’s last trip to Tehran to discuss the 2015 nuclear deal.
Canete was in Tehran last week to reaffirm Europe’s support for the agreement.
At a joint news conference on Sunday with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear agency, Canete said Iran had fully complied with the JCPOA, adding it needed to be preserved in its current form.
“This is exactly a nuclear nonproliferation agreement,” Canete said.”It’s fit for the task it was designed. So we want to preserve it and to implement it with full transparency.”
He also tried to reassure Iranians that Europe’s leaders remained committed to doing business with them.
“For sure there are clear difficulties with the sanctions,” Canete said. “For sure the European Union will engage with the United States. The United States is a key partner of the European Union and an ally.
“We’ll have to ask for waivers, for exemptions, for companies who make investments in good faith. We will prepare the mechanisms for the safety of European companies.”
Risk of sanctions
Even Canete admitted that in order to stand up to American sanctions, European governments would need to get permission from, yes, the Trump administration.
Several big European companies have already said they will not engage in any activity in Iran and thus risk punitive measures unless they can be guaranteed protection from American sanctions.
Such protection is unlikely to materialise any time soon. Indeed, shortly before his meeting with Canete, Zarif, one of the nuclear deal’s main architects, expressed doubt on the EU’s ability to resist US pressure.
In a closed session of Iran’s parliament, Zarif, briefing MPs, said it was not clear if European companies would trust their own government’s promises.
And during his meeting with Canete, Zarif said: “Political support of Europe for the nuclear deal is not enough.
“The European Union should take more practical steps. Announcing the commitment of the EU to the nuclear deal is not in line with the announcement of European companies that they would halt activities in Iran.”
Many Iranians say for big Europe firms, it’s time to make a choice.
“If investors have wide relations with [the US], we shouldn’t forget that they have considerable interests in Iran,” Behnam Maleki, an Iranian economist, said.
“[Investors] must make a choice, and my suggestion is that besides the solid economic choice, they should also pay attention to their social responsibilities, and the pursuit of a better world [with] more logical thought and policies. The goal is to move forward to a better world, not for some people to be destroyed while others profit. This attitude must be stopped.”
Be that as it may, it may be too much to ask of European companies – with shareholder interests to worry about – to risk attracting punitive American measures for the sake of adopting what the Iranian side regards as the moral high ground.
Chinese and Russian firms could step in and fill the vacuum left behind by European companies. Yet even Iran’s closest allies may prove unreliable.
“The Chinese have invested in Iran as expected; the Russians as well,” Maleki told Al Jazeera. “And despite the politics, they have stood by Iran. But there is no doubt that these countries are also after their own interests.”
On Friday, there will be another meeting between representatives of the remaining JCPOA signatories in Vienna, Austria.
However, unless they are able to convince European companies it is safe to do business with Iran, the 2015 nuclear deal, for all practical purposes, will continue to exist in name only.