EU Works to Save Unraveling Nuclear Deal with Iran Amid Tensions in the Gulf

Prospects for Their Efforts Appear Dim as Parallel Crises Brew Between London and Tehran

The European Union’s Foreign Ministers are making a last-ditch push to save the JCPOA, battered by the US withdrawal last year and Iran’s escalating violations of the limits on its nuclear program in the last two weeks. Prospects for their efforts appear dim, further aggravated by a standoff between Iran and the UK over a tanker impounded for violating EU sanctions on the Syrian regime.


On July 15, the foreign ministers of EU nations said that Iranian violations of the 2015 nuclear deal were not yet serious enough to trigger the reimposition of European and UN sanctions that would likely precipitate a final collapse of the accord.

After the foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, told reporters that “none of [the foreign ministers], for the moment, for the time being, with the current data we have had” believe that there has been “significant noncompliance” from Iran’s part with the JCPOA. And so, Mogherini added, “for the time being, none of the parties to the agreement has signaled their intention to invoke this article,” referring to the reimposition of all sanctions.

Two days earlier, Mogherini voiced support for an Iraqi proposal to host a regional conference aimed at soothing rising tensions between the United States and Iran, announcing the EU was ready to support the regional conference idea "in all ways that could be useful." She stressed that Europe’s priority was “to avoid escalation, avoid any miscalculation, that could lead to very dangerous consequences,” and that "the European experience” cautions against exploring “avenues of the unknown that can be dangerous for everybody."

Nevertheless, the accord’s prospects do not appear to be bright. Although the UK is officially committed to salvaging the JCPOA, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said as recently as July 15 that "we think there is a closing but a small window" to save the nuclear deal.


Alongside the U.S.-EU-Iranian imbroglio over the JCPOA, a parallel crisis has been brewing between London and Tehran. On July 4, British Royal Marines took control of the Grace 1, a fully laden tanker suspected of carrying crude oil from Iran to the Banyas refinery in Syria in violation of EU sanctions against the Assad regime. Senior Iranian officials denounced the measure as an “act of piracy.” according to Defense Minister Amir Hatami. Both president Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamene’i threatened retaliation. The former spoke vaguely about “consequences” while Khamene’i blasted “the vicious British” and threatened that Iran “will not leave these vicious acts unanswered.”

Iran made good on these threats on July 10, when five IRGC speedboats attempted to harass the tanker British Heritage as it approached the Strait of Hormuz. The effort was thwarted by a shadowing British warship operating out of Bahrain, although concerns remain about other ships at anchor in the Strait.

In a bid to defuse the tensions, Britain offered on Saturday to release the seized Iranian tanker. Foreign Minister Hunt tweeted about a “constructive call” he had had with his Iranian counterpart Foreign Minister Zarif. “I reassured him our concern was destination, not origin, of the oil” on the seized ship, Hunt said. He added that he had also said Britain would “facilitate release” of the impounded ship “if we received guarantees that it would not be going to Syria, following due process” in the Gibraltar courts.

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