World powers, Iran discuss nuclear deal amid questions on United States commitment

Elias Hubbard
March 16, 2018

Iran was expected today to resist U.S. pressure to toughen the 2015 nuclear deal as time runs out to meet President Donald Trump's ultimatum to fix the accord by May 12.

European Union foreign ministers, who will meet to discuss the issue Monday in Brussels, are expected to affirm that they believe the deal with Iran is good, and work to discourage Trump from pulling out of the deal in May.

But by picking CIA Director Mike Pompeo, an avowed Iran hawk, to succeed Tillerson as secretary of state, Trump sent a clear message that Washington was hardening its stance as a May 12 deadline approaches for the possible reimposition of US sanctions.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens as US President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Dec. 20, 2017, in Washington. However, the president has also proven his willingness to abandon global agreements negotiated by his predecessors and has made clear his opposition to the Iranian government and the deal itself.

"We got along, actually, quite well, but we disagreed on things", Trump said.

European leaders were spurred to action by Trump's threat to leave the deal and had been working with Tillerson on ways to restrain Iran's development of ballistic missiles. "Right now, I think it is in our interest" to stay in the deal, he said.

State Department policy planning chief Brian Hook is leading the USA delegation. Hook was an influential figure on Tillerson's staff and it's unlikely he will stay on under Pompeo.

The deal that was negotiated by the Obama administration and six other countries limits Iran's enrichment and stockpiling of material that could be applied to a nuclear weapons programme. "One of the worst deals I've ever seen, was the Iran deal".

As president, Trump bristled when faced with a USA law that required him to regularly certify to Congress whether Iran was complying with the deal and whether the agreement was in America's interest. Other reports have said that the president continues to oppose a supplemental agreement that could include elements of the changes he is seeking in favor of amendments to the nuclear deal itself, which was ratified by the United Nations Security Council.

One senior negotiator involved in the talks said last week that Europe is prepared to be "creative" in addressing the provisions but would not budge from opposing any measure that would punish Iran for activity that is otherwise permitted under the 2015 agreement.

Trump's next deadline to extend some of those concessions is May 12, and he has vowed not to do so again unless the Europeans meet his demands.

"The selection of Mike Pompeo at State should remove any doubt about the president's intentions", said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "Two months to go and President Trump will snap back the most powerful economic sanctions against Iran unless there's a real not a fictional fix to the Iran nuclear deal".

Omri Ceren, managing director of the Israel Project, a Washington organization that works on Middle East issues, said that with or without Tillerson's exit, the president had made clear he would not keep sanctions relief in place without concrete improvements to the agreement.

Trump said that he and Pompeo "have a very similar thought process" on the deal.

United States and European diplomats say they're closer on long-range ballistic missile launches, inspections and new sanctions on Iranian-backed militant groups.

The added political uncertainty, alongside concerns about the domestic challenges of doing business in Iran - including corruption, a lack of transparency and protectionism - are likely to weaken the country's investment prospects in the coming months and years should the United States exit the agreement.

"The North Koreans will wonder about whether one can have credible negotiations with the United States", said a former senior US official.

Officials from the US, Russia and other major world powers in charge of assessing the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal met in Vienna on Friday with delegates from Iran, amid growing questions about the US commitment to the plan. "So, if [it] goes away, then we will have to have another way to deal with their nuclear weapons program", he said.

Army General Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 13, 2018.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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