Thu, Apr 05, 2018 - Page 9 News List

‘Dialogue of the deaf’: Iran deal talks persist even as Trump looks poised to kill it

Europe and Iran are talking, but John Bolton and Mike Pompeo are against the nuclear pact as a May 12 deadline looms

By Julian Borger  /  The Observer, WASHINGTON

Illustration: Mountain People

Former reality show star turned US President Donald Trump loves the drama and tension of an ultimatum. It appeals to the ringmaster in him. He 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 May 12.

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 program signed in 2015 by Iran, the permanent members of the UN Security Council — the UK, the US, Russia, France and China — plus Germany, the EU 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 toward a new conflict in the Middle East.

Trump has repeatedly stated his hostility toward 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 US secretary of state and John Bolton for national security adviser. Both men 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 nuclear agreement in particular.

“Trump can and should free America from this execrable deal at the earliest opportunity,” Bolton wrote in August last year, when 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 in 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 recently been meeting a senior US Department of State official in Berlin, 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 administration of former US president Barack Obama.

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.

However, there would be no change to the agreement. Britain, France and Germany agree it is non-negotiable and represents a commitment to the international community.

However, 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, the transatlantic talks were “a dialogue of the deaf,” the diplomat added.

In Brussels, the agreement’s three European signatory nations have proposed new sanctions on members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and other entities, for Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and its role in the Syrian conflict. Other European states are hesitant.

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