Iran and US approach ‘end of diplomacy’, war of words escalates after new sanctions
ISTANBUL - As Iran and the United States are approaching the end of the “path to diplomacy,” European powers are urging the two sides to start talks.
US President Donald Trump, who abandoned the international nuclear deal with Tehran last year, threatened to obliterate parts of Iran if it attacked “anything American,” in a new war of words in which Tehran condemned the US administration, saying it had been struck with a “mental incapability.”
Washington imposed additional, largely symbolic sanctions against Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior figures and said punitive measures against Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would follow.
France, one of the European powers that want to keep the Iran deal intact, said it would ask Trump to suspend some sanctions on Iran to allow negotiations to defuse the crisis. French President Emmanuel Macron said the United States should give “negotiations a chance.”
A meeting of Iran with European powers, China and Russia in Vienna, Austria, did not produce a breakthrough. Iran said European countries offered too little at the last-ditch moment on June 29 to persuade Iran to back off from its plans to breach limits imposed by its 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers.
“The window of opportunity is certainly closing, as the Trump administration has pursued an aggressive and thoroughly hostile policy towards Iran,” Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, said in an email in response to questions.
“The EU has an interest to prevent a war that would be global — World War III, as I have repeatedly stated to the global media,” he said.
While Iran and the United States were heaping insults upon each other, the main sticking point of the confrontation remained unchanged. Trump wants Iran to accept stricter rules for its nuclear programme than the ones imposed by the 2015 international agreement that the United States abandoned last year.
Tehran rejects Trump’s demands and wants an end to economic sanctions by the United States. Iran has announced that it will deliberately violate limits of the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations, have few diplomatic channels that could cool the crisis.
Military tensions in the Arabian Gulf have brought the region to the brink of war. Iran shot down a US drone and Trump said he had called off a retaliatory air strike with minutes to spare, saying too many people would have been killed.
“Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration,” Trump tweeted. Iranian President Hassan Rohani said the White House’s actions bore signs of “mental incapability,” according to the BBC Monitoring Service. Tehran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi tweeted that US sanctions against Khamenei and Zarif meant “the permanent closure of the path to diplomacy.”
Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said neither the United States nor Iran wanted a major war but hard-line forces close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the supreme leader in Iran and hardliners in the Trump administration could accept military strikes that avoided a large-scale conflagration. “There are players on both sides who would risk a limited military confrontation,” Fathollah-Nejad said by telephone.
The row between Tehran and Washington has raised concerns over a war in the Arabian Gulf that could affect the global oil market. Iran announced in May that it was suspending two of its 2015 pledges and gave the remaining JCPOA participants — Europe, China and Russia — a two-month ultimatum to help it circumvent US sanctions or it would abandon two more commitments.
Tehran initially said it would have more than 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride in its possession by June 27, which would mean it had broken out of the atomic accord. But a Reuters report, quoting diplomats with knowledge of UN inspections in Iran, said the threshold would be reached a few days later. On July 7, Iran is set to start enriching uranium to higher levels.
Breaking the stockpile limit by itself doesn’t radically change the one year experts say Iran would need to have enough material for a bomb. Coupled with increasing enrichment, however, it makes diplomatic efforts at saving the accord harder.
“Iran runs the risk of losing the diplomatic and political support of Europe,” Fathollah-Nejad said. “They could be pushing things too far.” Europe did not know how to deal with Iran’s July 7 deadline, he said.
Senior officials from Iran, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia could not find a solution during their meeting in Vienna. Iran’s envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, said the talks were “a step forward, but it is still not enough and not meeting Iran’s expectations.”
Adib-Moghaddam said the Iranian measures in stockpiling and enrichment were meant as a wake-up call to the Europeans.
“In many ways, Iran was forced to react to the diplomatic lethargy of the EU and its inability to manage the crisis caused by the Trump administration,” he wrote.
“Certainly from the perspective of Iran, the EU is shirking its responsibility to follow suit upon the promises, in this case, the INSTEX alternative payment method.”
Farhang Jahanpour, an Iranian academic and member of Kellogg College at the University of Oxford, said Europe should take Iran’s warnings seriously. Writing in an email in response to questions, Jahanpur underlined that Tehran had so far honoured its commitments under the JCPOA while Trump had “ditched the deal.”
Jahanpour added that the EU “should take some serious steps to ensure that Iran derives some economic benefits from it to which she is entitled” under the JCPOA
“However, in view of the current threats of war in the Persian Gulf, personally I believe that it would be wiser for Iran to observe all the requirements of the JCPOA, so that it does not give the Trump administration an excuse to increase pressure on Iran.”