Iran Deal Has 'Implications for the Credibility' of the U.S., EU Ambassador Says

As President Trump is expected to let Congress decide on the future of the nuclear agreement, David O’Sullivan defends the pact.

David O’Sullivan, the EU’s ambassador to Washington.
David O’Sullivan, the EU’s ambassador to Washington. (Yves Herman / Reuters )

Next week President Trump is expected to decertify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, leaving it to Congress to decide what to do about the nuclear deal with the Islamic republic. Congress would then have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose nuclear sanctions on Tehran—a move that could mean an end to the multilateral agreement.

The European Union, France, Germany, the U.K., China, and Russia are also party to the deal with Iran, which was signed in July 2015. The EU countries, especially, have furiously lobbied the Trump administration and Congress to preserve the deal. David O’Sullivan, the EU’s ambassador to Washington, and his French, German, and U.K. counterparts, met this week with congressional lawmakers to explain why Europe believes the deal is working. In their view, it is preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

To understand why Europe, which works closely with the U.S. on a host of foreign-policy challenges around the world, is working so hard to preserve the JCPOA, I spoke to O’Sullivan, who has been ambassador to Washington since 2014. He told me Europe has conveyed its concerns to the Trump administration. He addressed criticism of the deal—that it doesn’t deal with Iran’s problematic regional activities, and that it allows Iran to restart its nuclear program in a number of years—and said he isn’t convinced the deal is dead. O’Sullivan also noted that how “America proceeds on this issue would have implications for the credibility of U.S. behavior in other situations such as, for example, the North Korea situation.”

Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Krishnadev Calamur: The president is scheduled to decertify the deal next week. Is there a way to save it?

David O’Sullivan: The term “decertify” may be not the correct term. What we’re hearing is that he may decline to certify. It’s not quite the same thing. But the first point that needs to be made, I think, is that this issue of certification and a role for Congress pursuant to a decision not to certify—this is all part of U.S. domestic legislation. So, in the first instance, it’s a domestic issue. The decision of the president to certify or not to certify does not have an immediate impact on the agreement. Obviously, if he were to decide that, and if it goes to Congress, we will have a period of uncertainty as to what the U.S. is going to do, and whether the U.S. is going to do something that could be damaging to the agreement. But, frankly, we don’t know that yet, and a lot will depend on what the president says and what strategy he outlines when he makes his announcement. By the way, I don’t think it is—we’re hearing that it’s very likely, but it’s not fully decided. So, I mean, I think we are still waiting to see what the president will have to say when he makes his announcement next week.

Calamur: So, they haven’t given you any heads up about what they might be inclined to do?

O’Sullivan: No. We have certainly been told, which I think is public knowledge, that the president is not very happy with the fact that he is required to certify [the agreement under U.S. law] every 90 days, that he doesn’t particularly like the deal, as we know, and that he has reservations about it. But no, I don’t think anyone is able to tell us what the president will do or say next week.

Calamur: If the U.S. does walk away, what will Europe do?

O’Sullivan: I really think that it’s a big leap from saying the president might decline to certify to saying the U.S. is walking away from the deal. I want to emphasize that we don’t think that we are there yet. Even in the event that the president were to decline to certify, this has an impact on the U.S. domestic procedures relating to the deal, but it does not have an immediate impact on the deal itself. So, we still remain confident that the United States will not walk away from this deal.

Obviously, the European Union and our 28 member states are fully committed to this deal, and we believe that as long as Iran is fully respecting its obligations under the agreement, which is unanimously agreed to by everyone to be the case, we think this deal should remain in place, and we will work in that direction.

Calamur: I know that you met this week with members of Congress. What sort of efforts are you engaged in? What sorts of feedback are you getting back from Congress?

O’Sullivan: Members of Congress are also waiting to see what the president will decide. We have indeed—myself, and my British, French, and German colleagues—been actively going around Congress just so that people are aware of the European Union position. But the impression we have is that members of Congress are also waiting to see what the president will decide. They are conscious that in certain scenarios this could come back to Congress. And they are reflecting on what position they would then take. What I have felt is that while there are many critics of the deal, there also many people who while having hesitations about the deal, feel that now the deal is in place that it’s better to keep it functioning rather than to unravel it. But we have no idea what Congress will ultimately do if the responsibility passed to them.

Calamur: Is there a JCPOA without the United States?

O’Sullivan: The deal is signed by the six signatories and has been endorsed by the [UN] Security Council. I don’t think anyone, frankly, has thought through what they would do if one of those signatories said they consider themselves no longer bound by the deal. That would have to be discussed by the other signatories, as to what the future of the deal would be. To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think people have speculated on that and, by the way, I have not actually heard a serious suggestion that the U.S. wants to unravel the deal. I have heard that there are concerns about the way the deal functions. I’ve heard concerns about Iran’s other activities in the region, which, of course, are not addressed by the deal. But we have not, I must say, picked up a determined view of unraveling this deal. Now, there could be surprises, but that’s not the kind of echoes we’re hearing.

Calamur: What would you tell critics of the deal? Are some of their criticisms of the deal justified?

O’Sullivan: It depends what you mean. There are two types of criticism. There is a criticism that the deal was not comprehensive enough, that it did not cover Iran’s other activities. The answer to that is that when we started this negotiation, it was a conscious decision to focus on the single most important issue, which was that Iran did not acquire nuclear weapons. And to put other issues into the mix would frankly have blurred the importance of the nuclear issue, and would have perhaps undermined the quality of the deal that we could get on the nuclear issue. That was why the focus was on the nuclear deal. That’s all this deal does: It addresses the nuclear question and it, in our view, definitively puts nuclear weapons beyond Iran’s reach.

The second type of criticism [is from] those who say that the deal isn’t, you know, tough enough. They point to one of the sunset clauses, which is in 10 years [from when the deal was signed in 2015]. Frankly, we think this is one of the most comprehensive nuclear nonproliferation deals ever reached. The Iranians have had to accept unprecedented levels of surveillance and oversight of their nuclear program, and it is not true to say that the deal sort of expires in 2025. The deal actually carries on. Certain elements of it go on for 10, 15, and even 30 years. And, of course, Iran has signed on, formally and solemnly, to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and the additional protocol, which provides for additional surveillance in the event there was a suggestion that Iran was restarting a nuclear armaments program after 2025. So, we think those criticism of the deal are not justified.

Calamur: What does this say about future efforts at multilateral diplomacy involving the U.S.? Can you trust America’s word?

O’Sullivan: We do trust America’s word, as Europeans. But I think this is a question, and I’ve heard this mentioned, around Congress as well, that how America proceeds on this issue would have implications for the credibility of U.S. behavior in other situations such as, for example, the North Korea situation. So, I think, people here are conscious of the fact that the need for a certain consistency in approach to these issues is an important part of credibility—also in addressing nuclear issues in other contexts.

Calamur: Can you talk a little bit about how the EU plans to respond to sanctions, in the event they are reimposed, on European businesses working with Iran?

O’Sullivan: Again, this is a hypothetical question. We don’t know what the U.S. is going to do. We don’t know what the president will decide, and if the president decides not to certify, and it comes back to Congress, we don’t know whether Congress will seek to reimpose some of the sanctions that were lifted as part of the nuclear deal. Our view is that while it is legitimate to contemplate sanctions on issues not related to the nuclear deal, it is not consistent with this deal to seek to put back sanctions which were clearly related to the nuclear program. If that were to happen ... we will certainly explore all means to protect the legitimate interests of European companies who are trading legitimately with Iran in the post-deal context.

Calamur: Have you conveyed your concerns to the administration?

O’Sullivan: Of course. We’re in constant contact with the administration. I think they are well aware of our concerns, and we have shared them with them. But as you know, they are doing a review of the Iran policy and I don’t think they have reached the end of that process, and maybe this is something the president will say something about next week. We wait to see.