On January 14, 2020, just shy of the fourth anniversary of the full implementation of the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), the UK, France, and Germany triggered the dispute resolution mechanism (DRM), a tool created by the deal to address concerns about noncompliance.

Opponents of the nuclear deal in the United States crowed that this was a European move to restore its traditional alignment with the United States against Iran. But the E3 foreign ministers were careful to describe their “overarching objective of preserving the JCPOA.” Iran’s reaction also does not suggest the end of the deal, somewhat disingenuously claiming that Tehran had already triggered the DRM in response to U.S. noncompliance.

Jarrett Blanc
Jarrett Blanc was a senior fellow in the Geoeconomics and Strategy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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In this case, it is better to listen to the governments that made the decision than the advocates that are trying to spin or even shape it. Rather than ditching the deal, this is more a reinvestment in the JCPOA by European countries that have toyed with other diplomatic models.

To explain why, consider what the DRM is and why it has not been triggered until now.

The Dispute Mechanism in a Nutshell

The DRM is a classic example of how to manage disputes about an agreement reached between adversaries. The JCPOA is a highly technical document, with hundreds of pages of detailed commitments made by all parties (not just the United States and Iran but also China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the European Union). With such detail comes the possibility of detailed disagreements. Because no party would agree to entrust such disagreements to a third party, a structure was needed to allow the parties to meet to settle disputes. The resulting mechanism is essentially just a set of deadlines to prompt negotiations at various levels, starting at political directors, continuing through foreign ministers, and ending at the United Nations Security Council.

While the DRM formally allows any party to complain, the mechanism was actually negotiated as a way to address U.S. concerns that Iran would not fully implement the deal. It is not designed to deal with the repercussions of U.S. noncompliance. At the end of the process is a threat to Iran: the snapback of previous UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions. Basically, if Iran does not comply, all of the earlier UN sanctions against it will be reimposed. There is no similar potential cost to the United States. There is, however, nothing automatic about having the UN sanctions snap back into place. The schedule of consultations and negotiations can be extended by any length of time if the parties agree to do so, and the E3 have been clear that they do not intend to rush through the process.

What a Snapback Means

What does the snapback threat mean to Iran? Quite a bit. First, the resolutions coming back into effect would be under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, labeled as a threat to “international peace and security.” While most of the economic sanctions that would be restored by snapback have been made largely symbolic by U.S. President Donald Trump’s effective “maximum pressure” economic sanctions, snapback would sustain UN limitations on arms sales with Iran, which are otherwise slated to expire in October 2020. Despite the lack of economic benefits currently accruing to Iran under the JCPOA, these are real costs that Tehran would need to weigh if Europe moves toward snapback.

The Trump administration would much prefer to see Europe reach snapback than to win any modest concessions from Iran, because it would support the administration’s goal of making it difficult for a future Democratic administration to revive the deal in whole or in part. The Trump administration is so committed to this idea that they reportedly threatened 25 percent tariffs on European automobiles to force Europe’s hand

The Timing of Europe’s Decision

The implementation of the JCPOA to date has been, to say the least, disputatious. So why was the DRM only triggered now? There have been at least five moments where it could have been used earlier yet was not:

  1. After implementation day. The Obama administration was responsible for the first year of implementation, and there were technical challenges during that period, including the highly publicized Iranian decision to exceed its limits on heavy water in 2016. Any of these modest concerns could have been addressed by the DRM, and the Obama administration was serious about proving to Iran that even small technical issues would be addressed directly. But triggering the DRM would have set off a congressional reaction that would have limited the administration’s flexibility, and in the end each technical concern was successfully addressed through more informal and largely bilateral consultations.
  2. Before Trump’s withdrawal. Trump came into office with strong negative views of the JCPOA. His administration could have used the DRM to withdraw from the deal. Instead, they launched negotiations with the E3 to address concerns on the margins of the deal, not within it. In part, this may be because actual compliance concerns simply were not dramatic enough to sustain apocalyptic claims about the deal. It may also have been because working within the framework of the deal would have acknowledged or legitimized Obama’s accomplishment—which many analysts have identified as Trump’s real red line.
  3. After reimposition of sanctions. Iran proposed triggering the DRM itself in 2018 as the United States reimposed sanctions lifted by the deal. But because the DRM ultimately has no real leverage over Washington—there would be no negative snapback consequences for the United States—the Iranians were satisfied by issuing some fiery rhetoric and did not insist on actually using the formal process.
  4. After Iranian steps toward noncompliance. Throughout 2018 and 2019, Iran made announcements roughly every sixty days about noncompliant nuclear activities they would undertake in response to U.S. sanctions. Europe could have triggered the DRM after any of these steps, especially in November 2019, when Iran took the very provocative step of resuming uranium enrichment in its formerly secret, underground Fordow
  5. Immediately after Iran’s most recent compliance announcement. The E3’s decision to trigger the DRM was likely made in December and would have made sense as an immediate response to Iran’s final noncompliance announcement on January 5. They chose not to do so in the wake of the escalations that followed the death of Qassem Soleimani and perhaps in recognition that Iran’s announcement was relatively modest and did not include specific, provocative steps such as increasing uranium enrichment to 20 percent.

The E3 have not been explicit about why they did not trigger the DRM before but decided to do so now, but their reasoning explains the meaning and limits of the current move. Throughout 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron made vigorous efforts to restart U.S.-Iran negotiations that would bolster or replace the JCPOA and allow a de-escalation of conflict in the region. The E3 believed that the DRM would undermine this diplomatic campaign. After Trump repeatedly rejected Iran’s minimum price of modest sanctions relief to return to the table, and certainly after Soleimani’s death, that effort is simply no longer viable.

A Nuclear Deal on Ice

That means that quite contrary to the hopes of JCPOA opponents, the decision to trigger the DRM is not Europe abandoning the JCPOA, but Europe shelving (for now) efforts to negotiate its replacement. Instead, the Europeans are reinvesting in preserving some shell of the Iran deal as a potential platform for diplomacy at a future point, when Washington and Tehran are more willing.

The best-case scenario is probably a continuation of the current crisis, getting a little worse over time but not by too much, until the United States is willing to seriously reevaluate its policies and priorities and reopen diplomatic efforts. The E3 have done a good job sustaining this dangerous status quo instead of allowing it to get worse. Triggering the DRM should be understood mainly as another part of that effort.