Iran, US allies and JCPOA

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President of Iran Hassan Rouhani
Credit: Prime Minister's Office, Government of India / GODL-India

The United States has been trying its level best to reimpose sanctions after it withdrew from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), also referred to as the Iran deal, in 2018. The deal was signed in 2015, between Iran and P5+1 countries and was a brain child of then U.S. President Barack Obama.

Washington’s aggressive approach vis-à-vis Tehran has not really received unequivocal support from U.S. allies. After being left with no other option, some countries have buckled under pressure from the Trump administration.

Since the nuclear deal collapsed in 2018, none of the other P5+1 members namely China, France, Britain, Russia and Germany have backed the U.S. campaign to put maximum pressure on Iran. Even after the U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018, and Iran breaching the agreement, P5+1 members have been steadfast in their commitment to keeping the deal intact.

The United States has been trying its best to impose more sanctions on Iran through the UN, but has failed to get support from France, UK and Germany (E3). These countries are still making attempts to revive the JCPOA, and have refrained from extending support to the Trump administration’s aim of isolating Tehran.

On the contrary, the E3, set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) dubbed as INSTEX ( Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) to circumvent U.S. sanctions and carry on economic linkages with Iran (senior officials of the Trump Administration had criticized the decision of the E3 to set up an SPV). The INSTEX was used by the three countries to provide medical assistance to the pandemic-hit Iran in March 2020.

It would be pertinent to point out that EU also has been especially hesitant, as the unilateral breach of the agreement by the U.S. affected trade deals worth billions of dollars between the EU and Iran.

Recent U.S. moves

The U.S. has initiated proceedings to reimpose snapback sanctions to restore all sanctions from the pre-deal era. This also has not received adequate support from allies in the Security Council. The U.S. has also warned various UN members to fulfill their obligations to implement these sanctions.

The United States has also been putting more and more unilateral sanctions on Iran, though its move to get the UN to impose sanctions has failed. The U.S.’ approach towards Iran is creating problems for allies, though they haven’t crumbled under the U.S. pressure. 

In fact, the E3 have been stoutly opposing the Trump administration’s rigid and inflexible approach vis-à-vis Iran. While lashing out at the failed U.S. attempt to impose UN sanctions on Iran, E3 countries in a joint statement stated:

“Our goal remains to preserve the authority and integrity of the United Nations Security Council. The E3s remain committed to fully implementing Security Council resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA in 2015. We have worked tirelessly to preserve the nuclear deal and we remain committed to continuing to do so.” EU foreign affairs Chief, Josep Borrell also stated that the JCPOA was essential for regional and global security.

Iran-U.S.-India trilateral

Strained relations between Iran and the U.S. are also detrimental to India’s strategic interests. New Delhi shares close economic and strategic ties with the U.S. on the one hand, and deep rooted historic and economic linkages with Iran on the other. Tehran is especially important in the context of the Chabahar Project, which has been touted as India’s gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India, Afghanistan and Iran had also signed a trilateral agreement during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran in May 2016, to bolster India-Iran-Afghanistan trilateral connectivity, with the Chabahar Port being the pivot of this connectivity project. India was also looking to Chabahar Port as an important component of the INSTC (International North South Trade Corridor) which could be India’s gateway to Russia and Europe. Interestingly, the U.S. has exempted the Chabahar Project from sanctions as a result of its strategic importance for India.

Since 2019, there has been a deterioration in ties between Tehran and New Delhi after India stopped the purchase of oil from Iran due to the expiration of U.S. sanction waiver. Tehran expressed its displeasure with India for kowtowing to Washington on numerous occasions stating that this was impacting not just the bilateral economic relationship, but also progress on the Chabahar Port. In the aftermath of the Iran-China 25 year agreement, there were murmurs that Tehran was trying to elbow New Delhi out of the strategically important Chabahar-Zahedan railway line. (Iran was quick to categorically deny this saying that ‘vested interests’ were behind such reports.)

Post the Iran-China 25 year agreement, New Delhi has been making a special effort to mend ties with Iran, because of not just the Chabahar Project but also Iran’s importance in the context of regional security. This point is reiterated by the back to back visits of Defence Minister of India, Rajnath Singh and India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar to Tehran in the month of September. During both visits, connectivity and regional security were high on the agenda.

The U.S. allies cannot toe the Trump administration’s approach towards Iran since they have economic and strategic interests in Iran. It is important to reach out and engage with Tehran rather than alienating it. Isolation and sanctions will only result in Tehran being left with no option but to move even closer to Beijing. While balancing ties between Washington under an intransigent Trump, and Iran are no easy task, many countries are also factoring a change in guard. Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden has categorically stated that his approach towards Iran will be pragmatic and it is likely that the U.S. will rejoin JCPOA, this will provide space for E3 countries, India and other U.S. allies to engage with Iran.

While a lot of attention is being paid to the Abraham Accord, and the Trump administration’s role in the same, Iran is important not just from an economic stand point, but geopolitical and strategic dimensions as well.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. One of his areas of interest is the India-Pakistan-China triangle.

Madhav Grover is a student at the Warwick Law School, UK.