NEGOTIATIONS THAT led to a landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 were lavish and public affairs. Over a two-year period, diplomats from six world powers and Tehran camped out in Europe’s finest hotels, surrounded by legions of press from all across the world eager for details from behind gilded conference room doors.
The new Iran talks, on the other hand – quietly announced last month by US President Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson – are shaping up to be quite different. These negotiations do not include the press. They do not include Iran. And they are up against a very short deadline of 120 days.
These talks, held directly between State Department officials and their counterparts from Britain, France and Germany, or the E3, are over whether it is possible to broker an addendum agreement to the 2015 nuclear accord that will keep Trump from killing it outright.
European governments know the stakes are high. But they don’t know the standard for success they are working toward, given the president’s imprecise threats, his political interest in scrubbing the deal and his seemingly vague understanding of the nonproliferation agreement in the first place.
Last month, Trump gave Paris, London and Berlin a mid-May deadline to come up with a new sanctions framework around the nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, agreeing “for the last time” to waive nuclear-related sanctions critical to US participation in the deal.
“My administration has engaged with key supplemental agreement that would impose new multilateral sanctions if Iran develops or tests long-range missiles, thwarts inspections, or makes progress toward a nuclear weapon – requirements that should have been in the nuclear deal in the first place,” Trump said.
“Today, I am waiving the application of certain nuclear sanctions, but only in order to secure our European allies’ agreement to fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal,” he added. “This is a last chance. In the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately.”
Trump’s deadline caught European leaders off guard. Does the president expect them to complete a new, supplemental agreement that “fixes” the agreement to his liking in four short months? Would a framework for negotiations suffice? Or is this simply Trump posturing, preparing the world for his inevitable withdrawal?
European powers urge Trump to preserve Iran nuclear deal (REUTERS)
Europe’s diplomats are preparing for both. They are asking Tillerson’s team to explicitly outline what it will take to keep Trump within the deal for the time being. But they are also preparing a backup plan if he pulls out: the imposition of “blocking regulations,” a mechanism that would protect European businesses engaged in Iran from US secondary sanctions should they snap back into place.
It’s a controversial move that would spark heated internal debate within Europe – and one that, if executed, would set up a direct confrontation with Washington, and a potential trade war. Europeans are generally in agreement that US secondary sanctions, which they refer to as “extraterritorial,” violate international law and the spirit of their historic alliances with the US.
Europe has imposed blocking regulations to protect their businesses working in Cuba from US penalties. But the case of Iran is wholly different, involving a bigger market drawing larger companies exposed to greater risk – and a country the US deems a top national security threat.
Trump’s team is working directly with the E3 after giving up on the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Frederica Mogherini, whom they view as politically invested in the survival in JCPOA. The EU organized the original 2013-15 Iran talks, which included the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran.
Mogherini has warned that the EU will not take part in any supplemental deals that impose new terms onto the nuclear agreement. And she opposes new European action against Iran’s ballistic missile work – one of Trump’s baseline requirements for remaining within the JCPOA.
Trump has also asked European powers to address Iran’s regional behavior, noting that its aggressive tactics in the Middle East have been emboldened by the nuclear deal itself.
“I also call on all our allies to take stronger steps with us to confront Iran’s other malign activities
. Among other actions, our allies should cut off funding to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its militant proxies, and anyone else who contributes to Iran’s support for terrorism,” Trump said. “They should designate Hezbollah – in its entirety – as a terrorist organization. They should join us in constraining Iran’s missile development and stopping its proliferation of missiles, especially to Yemen. They should join us in countering Iran’s cyber threats. They should help us deter Iran’s aggression against international shipping. They should pressure the Iranian regime to stop violating its citizens’ rights. And they should not do business with groups that enrich Iran’s dictatorship or fund the Revolutionary Guard and its terrorist proxies.
“No one should doubt my word,” he continued. “I said I would not certify the nuclear deal – and I did not. I will also follow through on this pledge. I hereby call on key European countries to join with the United States in fixing significant flaws in the deal, countering Iranian aggression, and supporting the Iranian people. If other nations fail to act during this time, I will terminate our deal with Iran.”
SINCE THE president’s ultimatum, administration officials have offered mixed messages on what they will accept as adequate progress in talks with Europe to continue negotiations, justifying for Trump one more sanctions waiver. One official said he expects an agreement that “enshrines certain triggers that the Iranian regime cannot exceed related to ballistic missiles; related to a nuclear breakout period, to hold them to one year or less, and to inspection; and that would have no sunset clause.”
Their bullish rhetoric has born some fruit: France and Britain have already called for additional action against Iran’s “malign activities” regionwide, and warned that Tehran is in violation of existing international laws banning its ballistic missile work.
But they continue to insist on protecting the “fundamentals” of the nuclear deal itself, and on “compartmentalizing” talks such that the core of the JCPOA – its basic text – remains unaffected. And that position may prove irreconcilable with the Trump administration’s stance. It may be that no amount of time for negotiations would alter it.
Despite the president’s threats, Tillerson cautioned recently that Washington cannot force Europe to act one way or another, much less in a matter of weeks.
“The US is under a bit of a timetable to deliver on what the president is looking for, but we don’t – we can’t set timetables for others,” he told reporters on January 22, announcing his intent to “formalize” working groups on the matter.
Tillerson, who toured the Middle East this month, is leading an effort within the administration to keep Trump from tearing up the nuclear accord, hoping instead that he will leverage his threats to bring Europe to a meaningful compromise.
“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” Tillerson said.