A protester dressed as a judge holds a European Union flag as he demonstrates for the ‘Britain for Europe’ campaign outside the Supreme Court in London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Europe Sees Way to Save Iran Deal by Placating Trump on Missiles

(Bloomberg) -- European governments may have found a way to save -- or at least sustain -- the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that President Donald Trump has threatened to scuttle.

With Trump vowing to back out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by May if progress isn’t made in toughening some of its terms, officials from France, Germany and the U.K. -- working with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson -- are focusing on how to restrain Iran’s development of ballistic missiles. That could help buy time for the nuclear accord, which international inspectors say Iran continues to abide by.

“We think we can do that -- we think we can do that together,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said at a news conference alongside Tillerson in London on Monday. “It’s important we do that in parallel and don’t vitiate the fundamentals of the Iran nuclear deal, and we’re sure we can do that.”

European leaders have been spurred to action by Trump’s threat, made earlier this month, to back out of an agreement that he’s called “the worst deal ever” by May. That’s when the next deadline imposed by Congress comes due for him to honor a U.S. commitment under the JCPOA to waive nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.

Read a QuickTake explainer on the Iran nuclear deal Trump hates

Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed that threat during a visit to Israel on Monday, saying, “Unless the Iran nuclear deal is fixed, President Trump has said the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal immediately.”

Trump has suggested he won’t carry out that step if the multinational agreement’s key flaws can be fixed. Those include the accord’s failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile development; the fact that some of the most severe restrictions on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program begin expiring within the next decade; and that the agreement doesn’t do anything to address Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist groups or contributions to regional instability in places such as Yemen.

“This is a last chance,” Trump vowed this month. “No one should doubt my word.”

Focusing on ballistic missiles is an easy choice for European leaders, who are overwhelmingly in support of keeping the nuclear deal intact. Restricting Iranian missile launches and technological development isn’t mentioned in the JCPOA. Any agreement wouldn’t necessarily require a renegotiation of the original deal, something vehemently opposed by all of the parties to the deal other than the U.S. -- Iran, France, Germany, the U.K., Russia and China.

No Respect

In addition, there is a growing consensus among other nations that Iran is violating a United Nations Security Council resolution urging it not to “undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles” capable of carrying nuclear weapons for eight years from the day the nuclear deal was adopted. Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Monday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Iran “does not respect” that resolution.

Since the July 2015 agreement, Iran has launched at least 23 ballistic missiles, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an analyst with the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which has long opposed the nuclear deal. 

“Iran has been testing mostly medium-range ballistic missiles but they can all target U.S. bases in the region,” Ben Taleblu said. “Since Trump’s election, they are still trying to gauge where the red lines are.”

Watered-Down Language

Before the 2015 nuclear deal, a United Nations resolution from 2010 stated emphatically that “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” But in the hard-fought negotiations over the the nuclear accord, Iran won acquiescence from the U.S. and allies for a UN resolution that simply “called upon” it to refrain from work on such missiles for as long as eight years.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has argued that ballistic missile testing is permitted because the weapons aren’t being developed for the purpose of delivering nuclear weapons, which are already banned under the JCPOA.

But there has also been growing concern about Iran’s role in Yemen, where Houthi rebels have fought against Saudi-led forces, stoking a humanitarian crisis. A UN report circulated to Security Council members says Iran has provided the rebels with ballistic missiles they’ve used to target Saudi facilities.

Iran Trip

French Foreign Minister Le Drian will visit Iran on March 5 to discuss the nuclear accord and other regional issues, he said in an interview this week with Le Figaro, in which he reiterated France’s continuing support for the 2015 deal.

A United Nations diplomat, who asked not to be identified discussing internal policy deliberations, said France, Germany and the U.K. have all told Iran that it must come to the table to address ballistic missile issues.

The challenge now will be Iran: In an interview with the Etemaad newspaper in Iran, deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said his country acknowledged there had been an exchange of views with other governments on the issue but stressed that Iran isn’t willing to negotiate over ballistic missiles. The country contends it doesn’t want a nuclear weapon so any missiles would carry conventional, not nuclear, payloads. Conventional weapons aren’t banned.

“Imposing non-nuclear sanctions in the hope of keeping Trump in the JCPOA will result in the opposite,” he said. “We have not conducted, nor will we conduct any negotiations to discuss our country’s missiles.”

The Islamic Republic is unlikely to change that position under any circumstance, said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

“I think there is no chance that sanctions will persuade Iran to abandon what is now a very large and sophisticated program to develop missiles with ranges below 2,000 kilometers,” Lewis said. “Iran apparently voluntarily offered to limit the range of its ballistic missiles to 2,000 kilometers. I think that’s the best deal we’re going to get.”

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