Morning Brief

European Powers Censure Iran Over Nuclear Breaches

Britain, France, and Germany trigger a last-ditch mechanism, desperate to bring Iran back in line with the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif  shakes hands with Cornel Feruta, acting head of the U.N. atomic watchdog, upon his arrival in Tehran on Sept. 8, 2019.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with Cornel Feruta, acting head of the U.N. atomic watchdog, upon his arrival in Tehran on Sept. 8, 2019. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal formally accuse Iran of breaching it, the U.S. and China are set to sign their “phase one” trade deal, and foreign policy at last takes center stage in a U.S. Democratic presidential debate.

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European Powers Accuse Iran of Nuclear Breaches

Britain, France, and Germany on Tuesday took formal action against Iran for its breaches of the 2015 nuclear agreement, triggering the deal’s so-called dispute settlement mechanism. That could mean the eventual return of the U.N. sanctions lifted by the pact, but the European parties insist they want to keep the deal afloat. The mechanism now begins a 65-day review period for all remaining signatories to the deal, including Iran and Russia. (It’s not yet clear if the United States will play a role.)

The Europeans have distanced themselves from the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, but the decision to trigger the dispute mechanism does mark a desperate attempt to save the nuclear deal, as FP’s Colum Lynch explains. European leaders have been alarmed about Iran’s recent breaches, particularly its growing uranium enrichment capacity.

Doomed strategy? “Our goal is clear,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Tuesday. “We want to preserve the accord and come to a diplomatic solution within the agreement.” Still, the dispute settlement process could portend the deal’s ultimate demise. Iran still hinges its return to compliance with the accord on relief from crippling U.S. sanctions amid the highest tensions between the countries in decades.

What’s next? The question of Iran’s compliance will first be put to a joint commission of signatories to the deal, who might not agree. Russia criticized the decision to trigger the mechanism. Iran, meanwhile, immediately dismissed the move. “The usage of the dispute mechanism is legally baseless and a strategic mistake from a political standpoint,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday.

What We’re Following Today

U.S. and China sign “phase one” trade deal. The United States and China will ink a preliminary trade deal today in Washington, after nearly two years of trade war. But the “phase one” agreement is more of a negotiating victory than a full trade truce, as FP’s Keith Johnson explained last month. It’s not yet clear how the terms will play out: While China has agreed to buy nearly $80 billion of U.S. goods, skeptics say that target isn’t realistic. Plus, existing U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods will likely remain until the 2020 U.S. presidential election—with reductions contingent on China’s compliance with the deal.

Iran cracks down on dissent. Iran announced on Tuesday that it had detained at least 30 people for protesting against the government after it admitted its military mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane amid heightened tensions with the United States. It has also arrested people allegedly responsible for downing the plane. Amid the unrest, the government still appears desperate to control the narrative. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps detained one person who posted a video of a missile hitting the plane, and several journalists have resigned from state media in the aftermath of the admission.

Despite the apparent de-escalation after Iran’s missile attack last week, U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe remain nervous about the possibility of increased violence in the region, Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer report.

U.S. Democratic candidates take on foreign policy. In Tuesday’s Democratic debate, foreign policy at last took center stage, as six candidates sparred over the Middle East, North Korea, trade, and national security issues. All appeared to agree on the urgency of the climate crisis, and most have outlined plans to make the United States carbon neutral in the next three decades. Both former Vice President Joe Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigieg called for replacing the president’s 9/11-era authorizations for use of military force—an issue that has taken on new urgency after a dangerous escalation of U.S.-Iran tensions last week.

Keep an Eye On

Sudan’s government. Sudan’s new government confronted the biggest challenge to its administration on Tuesday, putting down a revolt by security agents associated with ousted President Omar al-Bashir. Demanding better severance pay, the security agents stormed the intelligence headquarters, leading to a 15-hour standoff. (Bashir’s security service was disbanded after the April coup.)

The German economy. Germany will release its 2019 GDP data today. It is expected to show that its economic growth is slowing significantly. After expanding by 1.5 percent in 2018, the German economy likely grew only 0.5 percent last year—weighed down by trade conflicts, political uncertainty, and a downturn in the auto industry.

Ethiopia’s dam dispute. Today marks the deadline for Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to resolve their disagreement over Ethiopia’s hydropower dam project on the Nile, but the countries remain deadlocked after U.S.-sponsored talks. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has now called on South Africa to intervene in the years-long dispute.

Odds and Ends

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador put his presidential jet up for sale a year ago as part of his austerity program. But Mexico hasn’t been able to sell the Boeing Dreamliner—which can’t be converted back into a commercial plane—and it has racked up $1.5 million in maintenance costs. Now, the government is just hoping to offset its losses on the plane. It’s also placed another 19 planes and nine helicopters up for auction.

That’s it for today. 

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Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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