0634 GMT March 25, 2019
On May 8, President Donald Trump announced the US pullout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran and the P5+1 in July 2015.
Following the move by Washington, other signatories to the deal, particularly the European ones, disapproving of the US decision, announced their support for preserving the deal and their commitment to its terms.
This came as, immediately after Trump’s announcement, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would not withdraw from the JCPOA providing that other parties to the deal guarantee the country’s interests within the framework of the agreement.
In addition, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei set out a series of conditions for European powers to meet in case they wanted Tehran to stay in the deal, including steps by their banks to safeguard trade with Tehran and guarantee Iranian oil sales.
Since then, all sides to the deal have undertaken efforts to save the deal in the wake of the US withdrawal, an instance of which was the discussions held in the Vienna meeting on July 6 between the foreign ministers of Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
As part of such efforts, Europeans put forward a package of proposals to save the treaty and said they are considering the possibility of reactivating the 1996 ‘blocking statute,’ aimed at allowing their companies to ignore US unilateral sanctions and continue trade with Iran as part of the package.
Commenting on the latest developments in the UK and Europe regarding the JCPOA in an exclusive interview with Iran Daily, Sir Simon McDonald, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and head of the Diplomatic Service, said the fact that the three European parties to the Iran nuclear deal are doing something different from the US is an important signal, as in foreign policy this rarely happens.
Recently in Iran to meet the UK’s diplomatic staff in the country and inform himself about the latest developments in the Middle Eastern state, he expressed optimism that together “we will be able to preserve” the JCPOA.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
IRAN DAILY: What is the aim of your visit?
SIR SIMON MCDONALD: I have two jobs in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: (1) I am the head of the Diplomatic Service and (2) I am the Permanent Under-Secretary of State (PUS). In the first job, I look after the diplomatic network in 169 countries around the world. It is part of my job to come and see my team. I spent the last 24 hours seeing the UK-based and local colleagues in the British Embassy in Tehran and hearing about the life here, which has been interesting. As the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, I am the principal foreign policy adviser to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Since Iran is one of our key partners in the Middle East and a lot of the work of the foreign secretary involves this country, I have come here to inform myself in order to provide better advices.
The package of proposals put forward by Europeans to save the JCPOA has failed to be satisfactory to Iranian officials. What is the UK’s suggestion for improving the package in a way that it satisfies Iran?
First, I would dispute your characterization of Tehran’s reaction to the discussions in Vienna meeting. I think that the Iranian side appreciated the fact that Europeans were separating themselves from the US on this important issue and are still part of the agreement and supporting it along with Iran. The discussion in that meeting was on how to support the agreement. However, not everything can be achieved in one day at one meeting, which, I think, the Iranian side understood that. This is part of a process and I think we have made pretty good progress.
Many people, especially in the US, are surprised that two months after the American withdrawal, the agreement is still in robust existence.
NAEEM AHMADI/IRAN DAILY
As a party to the JCPOA, what pragmatic steps and efforts has the UK taken and made, or plans to take and make, separately, to safeguard Iran’s interests within the framework of the deal?
The UK has been acting with its European partners in handling of the next steps. This is important to us because, as we leave the EU, we want to show that we can still work closely with our partners on key foreign policy issues, the prime example of which is the JCPOA. Thus, this has not just been British work, this has been European work. We are discussing with Iran, the sectors of most interest to the country. Oil and gas and the banking sectors are at the heart of the negotiations.
By signing the JCPOA, the Europeans have made a commitment, which is more than an aspiration. However, new mechanisms will have to be put in place and they will take some time to develop. But I should stress that we think the JCPOA is a good deal for Iran. We believe that it is in Iran’s interest to stay in the JCPOA. The preservation of the deal is also in the interest of Europe and that is why we are working so hard to this end.
Is the UK willing to jeopardize some of its own interests for the sake of Iran and preserving the nuclear deal?
Every negotiation involves compromise by both sides. I can expect there will be things that are a little bit difficult for us to do and things a little bit difficult for Iran to do. But in order to reach an agreement we have to compromise.
To what extent will the reactivation of the ‘blocking statute’ by the European Union (EU) help save the JCPOA?
The ‘blocking statute’ is part of the overall European package and not the only thing. But it is an important signal on the part of the Europeans and shows their support for the JCPOA. It has not finally been agreed within Europe. There are procedures that are still running. So we will not know until the end of August whether it will be activated or not.
Did the activation of the law prove effective in the past in helping the EU achieve what it was looking for?
This was something designed in the mid-1990s. But I do not believe it was used at that time. Nevertheless, it is one of the theoretical instruments that the EU possesses. Being quite high-stakes, in case the EU activates the ‘blocking statute,’ it will be an important signal. This is not something that is lightly undertaken, as it is something which we know would be unwelcome in the US.
In case of being reactivated in the future, will the law help protect major European companies and their interests against US financial penalties?
This, we will see. But the whole point is to facilitate continued business between the European countries and Iran. The signal that we are sending is that we want our companies to continue to be able to do business with Iran without fearing that a penalty will be imposed on them for doing what is legally right.
How serious are efforts by the European states to preserve the JCPOA? What is your take on the gap that has opened up between the US and its European partners on the JCPOA?
I think it is an important signal that the three European parties to the Iran nuclear deal are doing something different from the US. In foreign policy, this happens rarely. I hope that Iran sees that this is something important for us, and not something that happens every year or, even, every decade. The UK, France and Germany are taking a different stand from the US in an important international issue.
The reason we are doing it is because we are very attached to the JCPOA. We think that the deal is good for Iran and the country should remain within the agreement. Thus, we are attempting to help Tehran stay within this agreement.
Although there is a difference with the US, some of America’s concerns are shared by the UK and the Europeans. We have questions about the missile technology program in Iran and the country’s regional behavior. Therefore, the fact that we are disagreeing with the US about the JCPOA does not mean that we disagree with Washington about all aspects of the Middle East and Iran policy.
The UK, along with China, is currently in charge of the project to modernize Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor. What is Britain’s plan for accomplishing this mission?
The UK taking on the joint presidency of this project was something that was agreed on in the Vienna meeting. London volunteered to do this. Since it is an important technical mission, we will work out a technical plan. Early discussions to this end have already started.
Have you held any talks with China on this joint project?
We have already begun our early contact with our Chinese partner to fulfill obligations under this.
Would you please tell us about the value of trade between the UK and Iran, prior to and after the signing of the JCPOA?
Iran is an important trading partner for the UK. Immediately after the signing of the JCPOA, trade between Tehran and London increased by 100 percent to stand at about $500 million. At that time, there was a burst of interest and activity which resulted in the 100-percent increase which was very welcome. The figure was relatively lower before the international agreement was signed. But now, we have to see what happens next as it is too early to judge what would be the impact of US withdrawal from the JCPOA. Clearly, what has happened so far this year is causing some turbulence in the trading relationship between the two countries.
On this visit, I met with trade and investment people in the British Embassy in Tehran. We have a section, titled the Department for International Trade, whose work is to encourage trade and investment between the UK and Iran. Although they are very professional and very determined, they do not disguise the fact that the US withdrawal from the agreement makes their work more complicated. This, however, makes them more determined.
The UK and Iran have experienced many ups and downs in their political relations. What stages do you think they are required to undergo so that the two countries can resolve their differences and open a new chapter in their bilateral relations?
The UK and Iran know each other very well. Their relationship with each other goes back many decades. Even at present, we are meeting in a room that was built in the 19th century for the British diplomatic representative. My hope for the future is pinned on the next generation. Young people in both countries, I think, are very open to the other country. Moreover, there are many Iranians who study in the UK and many who are familiar with the UK because of what they see on the Internet. With increased understanding of the next generation, the future will be even brighter than the present.
What are the areas in which the two countries can expand political and economic cooperation with each other?
Since Iran is a major Middle Eastern power and the UK is a P5 country with major interests in the Middle East, logically, the UK and Iran, as far as the field of politics is concerned, should work together on regional issues. Economy-wise, the oil sector is a potential field for expanding mutual cooperation where British companies can help further develop the oil industry in Iran.
At the moment, Iran does not export oil to the UK as the European country has its own crude. However, this is a global industry and, therefore, British companies can work in a country like Iran even though there are not big exports back from there to the UK.
What common interests do the UK and Iran have in the region?
Peace and prosperity are at the top of the list. With big countries and when the international system is peaceful, trade is higher, economic growth is stronger and people are better off. Both countries share an interest in the increased peace and prosperity of their people.
What is London’s view about Tehran’s role in resolving regional crises?
We see that Iran has a security interest in its own region. So Iran is legitimately at the table. Also, we hope that Iran will support the political process in regional disputes. There are quite a few right now in the neighborhood of, particularly, Syria and Yemen. Iran’s support for the political process in these two states will be an important contribution to solving the crises in these two countries.
How do you assess the policies of the new British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on the expansion of cooperation between the UK and the rest of the world, particularly Iran?
Although Mr. Hunt has been in his job for only a short period of time, he already knows that Iran is a key country for a British foreign secretary. I think among the first issues on his mind are to deal with the bilateral problems that London and Tehran have right now, as well as preserving the JCPOA and providing further support for it.
Is Brexit going to impact the UK’s policies toward Iran and London’s international cooperation, particularly, on the issue of preserving the JCPOA?
Although after March 29 next year, the UK will no longer be an EU member, it will still be a European power and will be working closely with other European powers on foreign and security policies. Thus, I am confident that even when the UK is outside the EU, it will continue to work closely with Germany, France and the EAS as well as others on major foreign policy issues including Iran. The fact that we have a framework, the E3+3, in dealing with Iran, will mean that there should be no bumpiness in that transition.
How do you see the future of the JCPOA?
What I see is that there is a political will in Tehran, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Beijing to keep the agreement in being. In diplomacy, if the parties are determined, they can achieve the desired result. I am optimistic that together we will be able to preserve this important agreement.