A day before Donald Trump’s 12 January ultimatum to “fix” the Iran nuclear deal, European powers met Iran’s foreign minister to show support for it, but the effort failed to soften Trump’s aversion to the accord, US and European officials said.
The gathering in Brussels may even have reinforced the US president’s antipathy, according to three US officials involved in the discussions.
#EU takes note of US statement on the Iran deal #JCPOA. We will coordinate with Europeans to jointly assess it and its implications.
We remain committed to the continued full and effective implementation of #irandeal https://t.co/7xNENj8sYX
— EU External Action (@eu_eeas) January 12, 2018
Trump instead gave the European allies, Britain, France, Germany, and the US Congress 120 days to come up with a tougher approach on Tehran or see US sanctions reimposed, they said.
With Trump warning of a last chance for “the worst deal ever negotiated”, Britain, France and Germany have begun talks on a plan to satisfy him by addressing Iran’s ballistic missile tests and its regional influence while preserving the 2015 accord that curbed Iran’s nuclear ambitions for at least a decade.
It is hard to say what might mollify the Trump administration, which is split between those who would like to tear up the agreement and those who wish to preserve it and which has said inconsistent things about its demands to keep the accord, US and European officials said.
Under US law, Trump must decide again whether to renew the US sanctions relief every 120 days, giving Congress, as well as US and European diplomats, until mid-May to see if there is a way to finesse the issue.
But the Brussels meeting has left European powers wary that whatever they agree, it may not be enough.
"Last week's EU/E3 and Iran meeting was also opportunity to discuss issues not related to #IranDeal, including protests in Iran. All these issues will and must be addressed outside the scope of JCPOA. None of them would be easier to address if deal was not in place" @JHahnEU
— EU External Action (@eu_eeas) January 16, 2018
“We’re going to work in the spirit that we’re ready to talk about everything, from the nuclear accord to Iran’s ballistic missiles,” said a senior European diplomat. “But we want to compartmentalise the subjects; we’re not going to mix them.”
At stake is not just an historic accord negotiated – before Trump took office – by the United States, China, France, Russia, Britain, Germany and the European Union, and one that Europe sees as its biggest diplomatic achievement in decades.
A collapse of the nuclear deal could see a breakdown in the relations between the United States and Europe that have underpinned the West’s security since World War Two, European diplomats and the senior US official said, and could confirm Europe’s fears that it can no longer count on US leadership.
Britain, France, Germany and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, are adamant that the deal cannot be renegotiated, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also ruled that out this month, speaking at the United Nations.
Initial contacts between the three European powers in Washington, European capitals and at the EU’s headquarters in Brussels suggest that Paris, London and Berlin will present a package of measures to the United States to allay Trump’s concerns about Iran but that do not reopen the nuclear accord.
The strategy could include threatening Iran with targeted economic sanctions if it does not agree to curtail its ballistic weapons arsenal, which the West believes contains longer-range missiles potentially capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
European diplomats favor creating a high-level working group with Iran to discuss the missile issue, while reminding Trump that NATO’s ballistic missile defence shield in southeastern Europe will boast a new site in Poland this year.
Reminder: Obama admin pulled missile defense shield from Poland & Czech Republic in ‘09 as an overture to Russia https://t.co/UGIooUqVkv
— Blake Johnson (@itsBlakeJohnson) January 10, 2018
Washington wants UN nuclear inspectors to be able to visit military sites as part of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s verification of the nuclear deal. The IAEA says it does not distinguish between military and non-military sites and has repeatedly said Iran is honoring its commitments under the deal.
Diplomats say the IAEA has not yet inspected a military site, and if Washington wants it to do so it needs to provide new information showing that this is necessary.
For its part, Iran has said its military sites are beyond the IAEA’s purview and repeatedly denied that its nuclear program has military dimensions, namely to develop bombs.
Another part of the potential European strategy is pressure on Iran to rein in Middle East proxies such as Hezbollah, and to stop arming Houthi fighters combating government forces in Yemen’s war, which has devastated the country.
There is discussion to push Iran to embrace UN-backed peace talks for Syria, where Tehran is sharply at odds with the West in its support for President Bashar al-Assad and whose departure the United States and its EU allies have long sought.
That could dovetail with US legislative efforts to change the nuclear deal’s so-called sunset provisions as they expire from 2025, so that if Iran were eventually to launch a nuclear arms program, US sanctions would kick in again.
In the US Congress, the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are working with the White House to write legislation they hope can meet Trump’s demand to eliminate “the disastrous flaws” in the pact.
“Presented the right way, it could be just enough to allow Trump to claim a diplomatic victory and sign legislation from Congress,” said a senior EU diplomat.
Mogherini will brief EU foreign ministers on Monday, while US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet his British and French counterparts in London and Paris this week on a trip where Iran “will dominate” many conversations, an aide said.
The Middle East peace process is on the agenda of foreign affairs ministers tomorrow. They will review the situation in the region & meet informally with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: https://t.co/LmXhyjWBmr #FAC @FedericaMog @eu_eeas pic.twitter.com/3x8G0rhPl4
— EU Council (@EUCouncil) January 21, 2018