NATO, OPEC, and the JCPOA Joint Commission Meetings

The center of geopolitical gravity will descend on Europe this week.  It begins with a NATO Leaders Meeting in London from December 3-4, followed by the Annual OPEC Conference in Vienna from December 5-6, only to be bookended by a meeting of the Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on December 6 in the Austrian Capital.  There’s one common denominator in all these meetings: the challenge of Iran.

Previous gatherings of world leaders have offered an occasion to discuss the threat from Tehran.  Last August, French President Emmanuel Macron used the G7 Summit in Biarritz to host a tête-à-tête with Iran’s foreign minister.  While there is no sign that any dramatic diplomatic maneuvering is in the offing, Iran will loom large during all these meetings.

NATO Leaders Meeting

Russia, China, defense spending, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, and the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria will all top the agenda, marking the 70th anniversary of the NATO alliance.  But the 800-pound gorilla in the room will be President Macron’s argument that NATO is experiencing “brain death” because of a lack of commitment by the United States and coordination.

Iran fits into this broader dynamic because of the disagreement between Europe and the United States over its maximum pressure campaign.  The Europeans are so fearful of being associated with the effort that most countries, aside from Britain, have declined to join the U.S.-led International Maritime Security Construct to provide a common defense against Iranian aggression targeting maritime activity in the region.

France is seeking to have it both ways.  It’s mourning the decline of the U.S. leadership in international institutions and criticizing the United States for an inadequate response in the aftermath of the tanker and Aramco attacks, while effectively creating an end-run around a U.S.-led maritime security initiative in the region.

To make matters worse, the European force is entirely redundant.  France’s defense minister announced that a French naval base at Abu Dhabi will serve as the headquarters of the mission.  But the United Arab Emirates is already a member of the International Maritime Security Construct.

Beyond Europe’s desperation to preserve a JCPOA that’s on life support, the hypocrisy and redundancy may be explained by Macron’s ambitions for a European Army—a concept of which Germany has been recently skeptical, in part, because it will undermine NATO.  Thus, these complicated relationships could impact the debate over Iran.

Washington should consider leveraging this landscape to bring the rest of Europe into its International Maritime Security Construct or at the very least push for increased coordination.  The celebration of the 70th Anniversary of NATO offers such a platform for the U.S. government to call for unity going forward.  Additionally, with the reports that Germany is preparing a “ban on activities” for Hezbollah, there may be additional momentum for the rest of the European Union to take a harder-line against Iran.

OPEC Conference

The annual OPEC Conference is another theater where Iran will figure heavily.  The meeting will feature Saudi Arabia’s new energy minister, Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud, coming face-to-face with Iran’s longest-serving oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh.  While tensions will be present—this being the first OPEC Conference since Iran’s September 14 attack on Saudi Aramco, which disrupted 5% of the global oil supply—the Saudi Energy Minister and his Iranian counterpart have a history of dialogue.

In October, when the two came together for a Russian energy conference, Zanganeh claimed that he had been friends with Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman for over 22 years.  A Reuters report indicated “the two ministers were later seen holding hands together…and speaking on the sidelines of the conference...”  On his panel, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman refused to comment on who may have been behind the attacks.  Thus, the existing rapport may reduce tensions in the room.

But while much of the agenda will likely be devoted to the possibility of extending the OPEC+ deal to reduce supply by 1.2 million bpd, the threat of more attacks by Iran and Zanganeh’s future in Tehran may present some complications.  Aramco is expected to announce a final price for its shares on December 5, right as the ministers begin their deliberations during the OPEC Conference.  It will be a reminder that despite attempts to deescalate tensions in the region, Iran remains intent on building leverage in the energy markets as a means to extract sanctions relief—potentially endangering additional Gulf oil infrastructure and Aramco’s IPO.  The head of U.S. Central Command just days ago warned “My judgment is that it is very possible they will attack again.”  Reuters reported that even in the final planning meetings ahead of the September 14 strike on Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had started “planning for the next one.”

Iranian lawmakers are also attempting to impeach Bijan Zanganeh after the new gas policy was instituted.  Already members of Iran’s hardline factions in parliament, the security services, and the judiciary are distancing themselves, arguing that the rationing and price increases weren’t implemented properly.  As noted above, Zanganeh is the Islamic Republic’s longest-serving oil minister—having served in the same role under Presidents Khatami and Rouhani.  His steady hands at the helm of the Oil Ministry since 2013 stands in contrast to President Ahmadinejad, who cycled through at least four ministers during his eight-year tenure.

Zanganeh has repeatedly been targeted by Iranian legislators over the years, especially after the U.S. government cancelled energy waivers for countries to import Iranian oil.  With the gas rationing and price increases infuriating Iranians, Zanganeh is entering the OPEC meeting from a position of weakness.

JCPOA Joint Commission Meeting

The Joint Commission meeting slated for December 6 in Vienna will be held at the level of deputy foreign ministers.  As a result, it’s unlikely that any dramatic announcements will be made—like the triggering of the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism (DRM).  Iran is likely continue to warn it’s prepared to further violate the nuclear deal in January, and Europe will reiterate its usual concern and regret over the U.S. withdrawal.

However, this will be the first Joint Commission meeting under the tenure of the new High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security Affairs for the European Union Josep Borrell.  It also comes on the heels of six additional European countries becoming shareholders of the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) and a warning from France’s foreign minister that the DRM remains an option if Iran continues to fall out of compliance with the JCPOA. 

In the end, the status quo in Brussels on the Iran file is likely to prevail in the near-term, given Borrell’s commitment at his confirmation hearing to preserve the JCPOA and European redlines likely focusing on 20% enrichment or kicking out IAEA inspectors, among others.  Also beyond the symbolism of more countries joining INSTEX, the European Union still hasn’t been able to get the mechanism off the ground after months of repeatedly telegraphing that it was in the final stages of operationalization.  Thus, deadlock over the JCPOA will likely continue.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).