US-Iran N deal under cloud

US-Iran N deal under cloud

Administration officials say the debate over whether to ultimately scrap the nuclear accord continues.

US-Iran N deal under cloud
Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, charged on Tuesday that the Trump administration’s attempt to reimpose sanctions on his country was a violation of the accord signed two years ago that sharply limited Iran’s ability to produce nuclear material in return for its reintegration into the world economy.

“It is not clear what the administration is trying to do,” said Zarif, the urbane, American-educated diplomat who negotiated the agreement with John Kerry, then the US secretary of state. “They have been talking about ‘scrapping the deal,'” he said. “Then they came to realise that it would not be globally welcome. So now they are trying to make it impossible for Iran to benefit.”

Zarif spoke at the residence of the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations just hours after the departments of Treasury, State and Justice announced new sanctions on Iran, many aimed at the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The announcement came the morning after President Donald Trump grudgingly recertified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal.

The new sanctions were intended, administration officials say, to emphasise the administration’s determination to find new ways to penalise Tehran for activities not covered by the nuclear accord, which Trump regularly assailed during last year’s campaign and threatened to tear up at various moments.

Iran’s adherence to its commitments within the accord prompted heated arguments inside the administration that continued Monday before Trump finally agreed to certify that Iran was in compliance with its obligations. The sanctions announced the next day cited continued Iranian development and testing of missiles, the country’s support of President Bashar Assad of Syria and its escalating cyberactivity, including the theft of software.

Zarif said Iran would “reciprocate,” but made the promise in a weary way, saying that Iran’s sanctions on Americans would be no more effective than US efforts to block travel or financial transactions with 18 Iranian individuals and entities.

But the bigger casualty, Zarif acknowledged in a 90-minute conversation with an invited group of journalists, was the prospect that the deal would mark a shift in more than three decades of antagonism between Washington and Tehran that dated to the Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah.

Two years ago, there was talk of whether, with the nuclear dispute behind them, the United States and Iran might cooperate against the Islamic State and strike a deal over Syria. Traditional Sunni allies of the United States like Saudi Arabia wondered if Washington was about to pivot toward Iran, which has a predominantly Shiite population, for the first time since the Shah’s fall.

Indeed, the deal was seen as a major gamble by the Obama administration. Over time, many officials thought the two countries would use it as a foundation for building a larger relationship.

Today that foundation is crumbling. Administration officials say the debate over whether to ultimately scrap the accord continues, though they acknowledge that doing that would free Iran to resume enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of plutonium, the exact activities the deal sharply limits.

On Sunday, Iran disclosed that it had been holding Xiyue Wang, an American who is a Princeton University doctoral candidate in history, for nearly a year and has sentenced him to 10 years in prison on spying charges. The disclosure shocked Wang’s colleagues at Princeton, who described Iran’s action as a colossal error. The incarceration of Wang, 37, also threatened to chill academic exchanges between Iran and the United States.

The reception Zarif receives now in Washington could not be more different than it was 24 months ago. He and Kerry developed a close rapport, even if it was often punctuated by shouting matches. But Zarif said he had never spoken with Kerry’s successor, Rex W Tillerson. “I haven’t asked for a meeting, and I don’t think I will,” he said.

Zarif said that if conversations do begin anew with the United States, they will be limited to the nuclear deal — and American compliance. But he did not sound hopeful, adding that Iran had no intention of renegotiating.

The benefits of the nuclear deal have been slow to come to Iran. At one point, Kerry met with European bankers to encourage them to reopen their dealings with Tehran, fearing that a backlash against the deal would occur if the West did not seem to be living up to its side of the accord.

Whether the Trump administration is actively violating the agreement by reimposing sanctions under a different rationale is a debatable legal point, though a number of American experts said that Zarif had a plausible case. The agreement has a mechanism in place to resolve both small and large disputes, which Zarif suggested Iran was about to become the first to invoke.

The accord specifies that the United States and other partners in what is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, “will refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation” of the agreement.

Isolating Iran
The Trump administration insists — as the Obama administration did — that such wording allows for sanctions to counter human rights violations, weapons proliferation or support of terrorism. In fact, then president Barack Obama imposed some sanctions the same day the accord went into effect in 2016.

The sanctions announced on Tuesday are similar to those Obama invoked. But the intent may be different. Last week, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deputy White House press secretary, told reporters that at the Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, Trump actively argued for isolating Iran, telling “more than a dozen foreign leaders” that they needed to “strip terrorists of their funding, territory and ideological support, and stop doing business with nations that sponsor terrorism, especially Iran.”

Zarif said he was philosophical about the change in tone. He had allowed for that during the negotiations, he said, noting that the document “was negotiated and drafted based on mutual distrust. You will see that mistrust in every sentence.”

Zarif dodged questions about Iran’s activities in West Asia saying he did not know how many Iranian or Shiite militias were in Syria, and he declined to criticise Assad. He questioned whether Assad’s government was responsible for the chemical attack that led to US retaliation in April. “Why would he do something” like the chemical weapons attack, Zarif asked about Assad, “the day after the president indicates removing Assad is not an American priority?”

Similarly, Zarif was defensive about Iran’s continued missile testing, saying it needed accurate missiles as a deterrent against the Sunni Arab states that the US arms with its “beautiful American military equipment” sold to the region.

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