West looks ahead after US quits Iran deal
WASHINGTON D.C. - After leaving the Iran nuclear deal, Washington wants to move forward by offering to build a "coalition" to counter the multiple "threats" posed by the Tehran regime -- but Europeans intent on saving the 2015 accord may thwart that effort.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday will unveil a new "diplomatic roadmap" for Iran -- how America plans to "address the totality of Iran's threats," according to the State Department's director of policy planning, Brian Hook.
Washington is looking to draft a "new security architecture and a better security framework, a better deal," Hook told reporters ahead of the speech, the first major policy address by Pompeo since he became America's top diplomat.
"The US will be working hard to put together a coalition," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, flagging Washington's bid for a multilateral approach after its unilateral withdrawal from the accord.
President Donald Trump has long trashed the deal with Iran -- concluded under his predecessor Barack Obama, together with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia -- saying it did not do enough to curtail Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
The Republican leader also said it did not go far enough in restricting Iran's ballistic missile program, or its intervention in regional conflicts from Yemen to Iraq and Syria.
"We need a new -- a framework that's going to address the totality of Iran's threats," Hook said.
So far, the guidelines of this new strategy are unclear.
The big unknown is whether European leaders, who were bitterly disappointed by Trump's decision to ditch the deal, would be willing to return to talks with his administration any time soon.
For now, the European Union is trying to persuade Iran to stay in the 2015 agreement, even without Washington's participation.
- Punishment strategy -
The re-establishment of the US sanctions that were lifted after the Iran nuclear deal was signed will force European companies to choose between investing in Iran or trading with the United States.
In reality, there is no choice -- European companies cannot afford to forsake the US market.
And with investment from Europe -- which had been the main carrot dangled before the Iranians to right their struggling economy -- now stymied, Tehran may have little incentive to hold up its end of the bargain.
Iran said Saturday it would wait to see whether Europe produces tangible results in overcoming US sanctions before it decides whether to stay in the nuclear deal, as a top EU official visited Tehran to present plans for maintaining trade ties.
"The ball is in the court of the EU. They have presented different proposals, we will see if they materialise," said the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi.
He was speaking after meeting European Union Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete, the first high-level Western official to visit Iran since the US withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers earlier this month.
Canete called the nuclear deal "fundamental for peace in the region" as he outlined EU plans to continue oil and gas purchases and protect European companies from US sanctions as they are phased in over the next six months.
He also had detailed talks with Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh on practical solutions, which he said included plans for direct payments between central banks and state-backed insurance for shipments.
A group of experts later met their Iranian counterparts to hash out the details.
Zanganeh said there were no plans to change Iran's pattern of oil exports, which amount to 3.8 million barrels per day, with 70 percent going to Asia and 20 percent to Europe.
Salehi acknowledged Europe's efforts to protect trade but said: "We want tangible results, otherwise we take our own decisions. I personally don't want to see such decisions being taken."
Iran has threatened to resume industrial uranium enrichment "without limit" unless its interests are preserved by the remaining parties to the deal, which also include China and Russia.
Salehi said the Iranian people had lost trust in the nuclear agreement and that if trade benefits were not protected "they will lose more confidence... and we will be forced to leave."
- EU firms eye exit -
Despite vows by European leaders to protect EU firms from US sanctions, several companies -- including France's Total and Holland's Maersk -- have already said it will be impossible to stay unless they receive explicit exemptions from Washington.
"For sure there are clear difficulties with the sanctions," Canete said at a press conference alongside Salehi.
"We will have to ask for waivers, for carve-outs for the companies that make investments."
Canete was due to meet Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Sunday.
Iran's trade with the European Union is around 20 billion euros, evenly split between imports and exports.
Oil accounts for some 90 percent of EU imports from Iran, going primarily to Spain, France, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands and Germany.
Iran has the world's fourth-biggest oil reserves and second-largest gas reserves.
But it has only finalised two major energy deals since the sanctions were lifted: Total's $4.8-billion South Pars 11 project with the China National Petroleum Corporation, and a $740 million deal with Russia's Zarubezhneft to develop the Aban and Paydar oilfields.
Analysts say Iran's hardliners remain wary of foreign involvement in the energy sector, and the Revolutionary Guards have sought to maintain their privileged position in major projects -- delaying negotiations with Western firms.
Russia and China are less vulnerable to economic pressure from Washington, and analysts say they could benefit from Europe's difficulties in Iran.