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US to press new deal … Iran tours for status quo


US President Donald Trump speaking to the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, October 7, 2017. – AFP

WASHINGTON, May 13, (AFP): US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington still wants to work with its European partners on an agreement to counter Iran’s “malign behavior” Sunday despite its withdrawal from a landmark nuclear deal.

President Donald Trump’s announcement last Tuesday that the US was exiting the 2015 nuclear accord was met with widespread dismay in Europe where companies now face the threat of sanctions if they do business with Iran.

But Pompeo said Washington was keen to thrash out a more wide-ranging deal with its allies as another top official said Iran had been “on the march” throughout the Middle East since the nuclear agreement was signed. Pompeo, who is barely a fortnight into his new job, told Fox News Sunday that he had been tasked by the president “to work to strike a deal that achieves the outcomes that protect America.”

“That’s what we are going to do and I will be hard at it with the Europeans in the next several days,” said the top US diplomat. “I’m hopeful in the days and weeks ahead we can come up with a deal that really works, that really protects the world from Iranian bad behavior, not just their nuclear program, but their missiles and their malign behavior as well. “And I will work closely with the Europeans to try and achieve that.”

The administration says the lifting of sanctions as part of the nuclear pact had allowed Iran to build up its military, with Trump claiming on Saturday that Tehran’s defense spending had risen by 40 percent since 2015. John Bolton, who is Trump’s national security advisor, said that Tehran’s military had exploited the easing of pressure on the Iranian economy to meddle in conflicts across the Middle East in the last three years.

“If you look at the advances that Iran has made under cover of this agreement, its conventional military and terrorist advances, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen, since 2015, Iran was really on the march,” Bolton told ABC’s “This Week.” “They were shifting the balance of power in the Middle East until President Trump got out of this deal.” Asked if Washington was now advocating for regime change in Iran, Bolton responded that it was not administration policy.

“The policy of the administration is to make sure that Iran never gets close to deliverable nuclear weapons,” he added. While he has committed to remaining in the nuclear agreement, French President Emmanuel Macron floated the idea of a supplemental deal on Iran during a recent visit to Washington.

German leader Angela Merkel also told Trump on a visit to Washington late last month that the nuclear deal was insufficient in itself to curb Iran’s ambitions in the region. Germany, France and Britain were three of the six signatories to the 2015 pact which saw sanctions lifted in return for the commitment by Tehran not to acquire nuclear weapons. Germany wants to help its companies continue doing business in Iran after the US decision to reimpose sanctions against Tehran, but it could be difficult to shield them from any fallout, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Sunday.

Trump’s decision on Tuesday to renege on the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and reimpose sanctions against Tehran came with the threat of penalties against any foreign firms involved in business there. Germany — along with France and Britain — has said it remains committed to the nuclear deal.

The foreign ministers of the three European powers will meet their Iranian counterpart in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss a way forward. “I do not see a simple solution to shield companies from all risks of American sanctions,” Maas told Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “The talks with the Europeans, Iran and the other signatories to the agreement are therefore also about how it can be possible to continue trade with Iran,” Maas said. Maas said the Europeans wanted to ensure that Iran would continue to abide by the rules and restrictions of the nuclear agreement. “After all, Iran is ready to talk. It’s clear that there should also be economic incentives — that will not be easy after the US decision,” Maas said.

The minister echoed calls from Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders that Iran should agree to a broader deal that went beyond the original accord and included Iran’s “problematic role in the region”. The Trump administration portrayed its rejection of the nuclear agreement as a response, in part, to Tehran’s interventions in the Middle East, underpinning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tough line towards Iran. “I think the Europeans will see that it’s in their interest ultimately to come along with us,” Bolton said when pressed on whether there could be American economic sanctions on European firms. Bolton said Europe was still digesting the May 8 move by Trump that has the United States dropping out of the 2015 agreement with Tehran. In so doing, Trump said US economic sanctions on Iran would be reimposed. “I think at the moment there’s some feeling in Europe — they’re really surprised we got out of it, really surprised at the reimposition of strict sanctions. I think that will sink in; we’ll see what happens then,” Bolton said. President Hassan Rouhani said on Sunday that Iran would remain committed to the 2015 nuclear deal if its interests were protected, while his foreign minister hoped the pact could be redesigned without Washington as a member.

The US withdrawal from the accord on Tuesday was a “violation of morals”, Rouhani said in remarks carried by state television. “If the remaining five countries continue to abide by the agreement, Iran will remain in the deal despite the will of America,” he said. Rouhani made similarly conciliatory comments on Tuesday, and on Saturday, foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif began a tour of other signatory nations in an attempt to save the deal.

Zarif said in Beijing on Sunday: “We hope that with this visit to China and other countries we will be able to construct a clear future design for the comprehensive agreement.” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Zarif’s tour would improve understanding of Iran’s position and help Tehran protect its legitimate interests.

“China is willing to maintain communication and coordination with all relevant parties, including Iran, and take an objective, fair and responsible attitude to continue to safeguard the …agreement,” Wang said. Rouhani has said Iran will stay committed to the deal, which China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany also signed, provided those powers ensured Iran was protected from sanctions.

The three European states have recommitted to the agreement, but senior cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said on Friday that Europe was not to be trusted. On Sunday, the head of the Assembly of Experts, a group of clerics responsible for choosing Iran’s supreme leader, said Rouhani should apologise for not having obtained guarantees from world powers for the agreement. “It is necessary for the president to honestly and openly apologise to the people over the damages caused by the nuclear accord,” Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a top conservative, said in a statement carried by state media.

The head of the elite Revolutionary Guards also warned against relying on foreign powers. “America’s exit aims to break the Iranian people’s resistance, which is not new … but today’s problem is not US sanctions, it’s that some officials look towards outside rather than looking at domestic potentials,” Guards commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari said, the state news agency IRNA reported.

On Wednesday, Jafari cast doubt on European nations’ ability to save the accord. With the deal opposed by hardliners at home, some analysts say the pragmatic Rouhani may now be a lame duck leader.

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