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US sees progress on Iran Nuclear deal fix – Trump demands like ultimatums

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right), and US Ambassador to Britain Woody Johnson stand outside the new US Embassy in London on Jan 22. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited the new US Embassy in London, a discreet move after criticism of US President Donald Trump, who refused to inaugurate it. (AFP)

LONDON, Jan 22, (Agencies): US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday that he sees progress in getting European support for tough new penalties against Iran that could prevent a US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

After meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, national security adviser Mark Sedwill and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Tillerson said they had agreed to set up a working group of experts on fixing flaws in the landmark 2015 agreement that President Donald Trump has warned he will walk away from this spring unless fixes are made to his liking. “I think there’s a common view among the E3 that there are some areas of the (nuclear deal) or some areas of Iran’s behavior that should be addressed,”

Tillerson told reporters after talks with Johnson. The E3 are Britain, France and Germany, which are all parties to the deal. Tillerson specifically highlighted concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program, which is not covered by the nuclear deal, and provisions in the agreement that allow Iran to gradually resume advanced atomic work. The working group will begin to meet as early as next week to discuss how to address the flaws “through some type of another side agreement perhaps or a mechanism that would address our concerns,” Tillerson said.

Johnson said that Britain was committed to doing what it could with its partners “collectively to constrain that activity and to make a big difference there. We think we can do that; we think we can do that together.” But, he stressed, “it is important that we do that in parallel and don’t vitiate the fundamentals of the Iran nuclear deal.” Tillerson will be carrying a similar message to Paris, his next stop in Europe on Tuesday.

The nuclear deal gave Iran billions in sanctions relief in return for curbs on its atomic program. But earlier this month, Trump vowed to stop waiving US sanctions unless the Europeans agreed to strengthen its terms by consenting to a side deal that would effectively eliminate provisions that allow Iran to gradually resume some advanced atomic work. Trump also wants tighter restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program. Iran has rejected any renegotiation. Britain, France and Germany have expressed some willingness to work with the US to prevent the deal from collapsing.

Earlier Monday, Tillerson became the highest-ranking US official to visit the new American embassy in London, a building that Trump has derided for its cost and location. Opening his nearly weeklong trip to Europe amid the government shutdown back home, Tillerson greeted US ambassador to Britain Robert Wood Johnson but was forced to cancel a planned meeting with embassy staffers.

The new embassy became a point of strain in US-British relations earlier this month when Trump said he had cancelled plans to visit Britain and formally open the billion-dollar London facility in February because it cost too much and was in a less desirable location than the old embassy. In a tweet that reverberated across the Atlantic, Trump lambasted the Obama administration for moving the embassy from London’s posh Mayfair district.

His explanation was met by skepticism from many who noted Trump’s possible visit was a source of controversy in Britain with some politicians saying he was not welcome and should not come. The decision to move the embassy was made by President George W. Bush’s administration in 2008 after it determined the old facility in Grosvenor Square had uncorrectable security issues. The new embassy was constructed with the proceeds from sales of US government properties and leases in London.

The new embassy, in the former industrial area of Nine Elms on the south side of the River Thames, opened its doors on Jan 16. Trump’s demands for changes to the Iran nuclear deal are like “ultimatums”, France’s foreign minister said Monday as European powers mull how preserve the landmark 2015 agreement. Iran is on the agenda at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, after Trump set a 120-day deadline for US lawmakers and European allies to fix “disastrous fl aws” in the deal or face a US exit.

The EU, which has staunchly defended the deal as the best way to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, is working on a response with France, Britain and Germany — the three European signatories. French Foreign Minister Jean- Yves Le Drian said as he arrived for the meeting that EU ministers would stay “firm” on the need to preserve the agreement, which he called “an essential element” of global efforts against nuclear proliferation. “We have observed with interest that President Trump did not break the agreement, even if on the other hand he has made demands that sometimes look like ultimatums,” Le Drian said. Le Drian will visit Iran on March 5 to discuss Iran’s ballistic missile programme and interference in conflicts around the Middle East — both key complaints of Washington.

US Vice-President Mike Pence vowed Monday in an address to the Israeli parliament that Washington will never allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. “I have a solemn promise to Israel, to all the Middle East and to the world — the United States of America will never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Pence said to applause from Israeli MPs. The 2015 deal that was meant to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities was fiercely opposed by Israel, but backed by then US president Barack Obama. His successor Donald Trump has fiercely criticised the agreement, accusing Tehran of not sticking to it and saying it still allows the Islamic republic to support terrorist organisations across the globe — including Israel’s longstanding enemies. Earlier this month Trump again waived nuclear-related sanctions — as required every few months to stay in the agreement — but demanded European partners work with Washington to improve the terms of the deal.

“The Iran nuclear deal is a disaster and the United States of America will no longer certify this ill-conceived agreement,” Pence said Monday. “Unless the Iran nuclear deal is fixed President Trump has said the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal immediately.” The other parties to the deal — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union — have all said it is working and that Iran is complying fully with its commitments. Iranian warplanes warned off two “coalition vessels” during military drill in waters off the country’s southeast, a senior naval officer said, in the latest confrontation between Iranian and Western forces that patrol the Gulf. The vessels approached the area of the drills early on Monday to monitor Iranian ships, said Rear Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi, spokesman for the drills, according to Tasnim news agency.

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