President Hassan Rouhani (R) and the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi inspecting a nuclear plant, Tehran, April 9, 2019

The UK, France, and Germany have given Iran another opportunity — possibly the last — to avoid economic isolation and maintain the 2015 nuclear deal.

The Europeans pursued the initiative through the formal triggering of a dispute mechanism, established in the 2015 agreement with the 5+1 Powers (UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia), over Iran’s suspension of commitments.

Rejecting a European economic link offered last February because of “humiliating conditions” and amid the Trump Administration’s withdrawal and comprehensive sanctions, Iran has taken a series of steps setting aside the deal’s provisions. Tehran has increased its stock of 3.67% uranium, raised enrichment from 3.67% to 4.5%, and installed advanced uranium centrifuges capable of fast production of even higher levels.

Following the US assassination of its leading commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Rouhani Government announced that it was suspending all commitments under the deal. Officials have indicated that Iran could soon return to its pre-2015 production of 20% uranium, capable of being further enriched to 90% military-grade fuel.

“Bring Iran Back Into Full Compliance”

The UK, France, and Germany distanced themselves from the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure”, with “regret and concern” over the US withdrawal and sanctions, while insisting on Tehran’s return to the nuclear deal.

We do not accept the argument that Iran is entitled to reduce compliance with the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].

Our three countries are not joining a campaign to implement maximum pressure against Iran. Our hope is to bring Iran back into full compliance with its commitments under the JCPoA.

Russia broke with the Europeans, saying it saw no grounds for the triggering of the mechanism.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denounced the move, “The usage of the dispute mechanism is legally baseless and a strategic mistake from a political standpoint.”

Zarif foreshadowed his criticism on Monday with a jab at the European Union:

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Iran will support any act of “goodwill and constructive effort” to save the nculear agreement but will give a “serious response to any destructive measures”.

The Economic Stakes

In February 2019, after months of negotiations, the EU launched the INSTEX mechanism for purchases of Iranian oil and other commodities, bypassing US sanctions. But Iran rebuffed the initiative because of the EU’s criticism of Tehran’s missile research and development, activities in the Middle East, and alleged involvement in bomb and assassination plots in Europe.

Under the pressure of US sanctions, Iran’s oil exports have fallen between 80% and 95% since April 2018, putting pressure on the Government budget. Long-term structural issues as well as the American restrictions have hindered productivity, trade and employment; raised inflation to more than 40%; and sunk the currency to a historic low.

In November, mass protests erupted over the Government’s sudden announcement of a 50% to 200% rise in petrol prices. The regime put down the demonstrations, killing at least 306 people, according to Amnesty International. Iranian officials said the death toll was 1,500 among protesters, security personnel, and bystanders.

Under the dispute, the European countries inform the EU, the official monitor of the deal. The EU then informs Iran, Russia, China, setting in motion 15 days to resolve differences.

That deadline can be extended or, if there is no resolution, lead to the reimposition of UN sanctions.