'Dialogue of the deaf'? Iran deal talks persist as Trump looks poised to kill it | World news
Donald Trump loves the drama and tension of an ultimatum. It appeals to the ringmaster in him. The former reality show star revels in having the whole world hold its breath in anticipation of his next announcement.
None of Trump’s serial deadlines is likely to be more consequential than the one looming on 12 May. That is the day on which he must sign a presidential waiver on sanctions on Iran, or violate a landmark multilateral agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear programme signed in 2015 with European allies, the UK, France and Germany, Russia, China and Iran itself. Trump has threatened to keep his signing pen in his pocket.
The dramatic tension over what he will decide is fast diminishing. The greatest uncertainty now is over how rapidly it will be followed by a slide towards a new conflict in the Middle East.
Trump has repeatedly stated his hostility towards the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), made impossible demands for the deal to be changed, and named hawks to two top positions in the past month – Mike Pompeo for secretary of state and John Bolton for national security adviser. Both have devoted much of their careers to vilifying the agreement.
Bolton is a splenetic opponent of most forms of multilateral diplomacy, which he sees as a sign of weakness – and of the JCPOA in particular.
“Trump can and should free America from this execrable deal at the earliest opportunity,” Bolton wrote in August last year when the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, was trying to have him barred from the White House for fear of his bellicose influence on Trump. Now Bolton is on the inside, able to lock more moderate voices out of the Oval Office.
“I think the Bolton appointment is another nail of the coffin of the Iran Deal,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.
The European signatories of the JCPOA have been meeting a senior state department official in Berlin recently, trying to come up with a formula that would address Trump’s two main stated objections to the deal – the unstated one is that it was signed by the Obama administration.
They are apparently close to an agreement on how to address Trump’s main complaints – the expiry after a number years of some of the limits on Iran nuclear activities, and the absence of restrictions on missiles.
The Europeans would agree to a commitment to a follow-on agreement when the JCPOA elements begin to expire and to push for sanctions on Iran for long-range missile development. But there would be no change to the JCPOA. Britain, France and Germany agree it is non-negotiable and represents a commitment to the international community. But Trump insists on the JCPOA being “fixed”, and failing that he wants it destroyed.
“We have given up hoping. He wants to tick the JCPOA off, another thing he said he would do in the campaign, that he did,” a senior European diplomat said. In that regard, he added, the transatlantic talks were “a dialogue of the deaf”.
In Brussels, the JCPOA’s three European signatory nations have proposed new sanctions on members of the Revolutionary Guard and other entities, for Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and its role in the Syrian conflict. Other European states are hesitant. Trump’s brinksmanship has forced Europe to tread a fine line.
“The Europeans should avoid taking steps that would jeopardise the deal in order to appease Trump, thereby killing the JCPOA in an effort to save it,” said Robert Malley, a former state department official who helped negotiate the JCPOA and is now president of the International Crisis Group. “One risk they run is that they’ll end up failing to placate the administration while further alienating the Iranians.”
In Berlin, the state department’s director of policy planning, Brian Hook, was representing the US in mid-March, two days after his boss, Rex Tillerson, was fired unceremoniously by Trump. The president told journalists he had not seen eye-to-eye with Tillerson on Iran, because Tillerson thought the deal could be saved, unlike his replacement. Pompeo, the CIA director, will not face Senate confirmation hearings for the secretary of state post until late April.
European officials said they had felt Tillerson was anxious to cooperate with them in order to come up with a solution that would be face-saving for Trump but not destroy the JCPOA. From his comments after firing the Texan former oilman, Trump clearly sensed that the secretary of state was not representing him but trying to manage him.
With Tillerson’s fall, Hook was trying to manage the relationship with the Europeans in the face of a leadership and policy vacuum. The morning session in Berlin was taken up by discussion on supplemental measures that the Europeans were prepared to negotiate over. The afternoon session on “fixing” the JCPOA got nowhere, as there was no wiggle room between trying to amend the deal and the European stance that the deal is non-negotiable.
“First we have to reach an agreement with the Europeans, and if we can’t reach an agreement with the Europeans then we will report that to the president,” Hook told reporters later. “If we can reach an agreement, then that will be presented to the president by the secretary of state and the national security adviser, and then he will make a decision on whether he wants to remain in the deal or stop waiving sanctions.”
Both officials making that presentation, Pompeo and Bolton, are dedicated opponents of the JCPOA. They are not likely to give any European proposals a sympathetic reading.
One of the last best chances to save the deal will be the state visit of Emmanuel Macron to Washington on 24 April, and his address to a joint session of Congress the next morning. French officials say the JCPOA, and the effort to save it, will be close to the top of the agenda.
If these eleventh-hour appeals for clemency fail, there are still nuances with which Trump can carry out the execution. He could seek to inflict a slow death – not sign the waiver on sanctions, but tell the treasury to hold back on their enforcement, like drawing back the bowstring but not actually firing the arrow.
Alternatively, Trump could let the arrow fly – not sign the waiver, slap on the sanctions that were suspended as part of the JCPOA and for good measure formally announce he is taking the US out of the agreement. To press home the point yet further, the US could trigger the resumption of United Nations sanctions, even in the face of opposition from other permanent members of the security council, under a “snap-back” mechanism built in to the deal.
Any variation of these presidential options will open a transatlantic rift. European diplomats refuse to speculate about a “Plan B” of what to do if and when Trump restores sanctions, claiming all their resources are focused on “Plan A”: trying to bridge the gap with the Oval Office.
However, European capitals have insisted that they will keep faith with the deal that they signed in Vienna in 2015. One option under active consideration consists of counter-measures aimed at insulating European companies from secondary sanctions (which target not Iran but anyone doing business with Iran). Such counter-measures were drawn up for an earlier sanctions crisis, over Cuba, but never used. They could include using Euro-denominated accounts to finance deals with and in Iran beyond the reach of the US Treasury.
“I think it’s critical that the EU, Russia and China, and other states too, try to hold the deal together,” Davenport said. “Failure to support the JCPOA would be a capitulation to the US position, but would also send a dangerous message that risks non-proliferation norms more broadly.”
There are serious doubts, however, over what any of these measures could do to relieve the chilling effect of a Trump walk-out on risk-averse corporations when they make decisions on whether to trade and invest in Iran. Companies like the French oil giant Total are expected to pull out if Trump does not sign the waiver on 12 May. Large-scale sales of Boeing and Airbus planes would also be in jeopardy.