Momentum builds for tougher transatlantic stance on Iran

Uncertainty remains over Trump’s final decision on nuclear deal
Sunday 29/04/2018
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attending NATO talks in Brussels on April 27. (Reuters)
Hawk landing. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attending NATO talks in Brussels on April 27. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - The United States is leaving both friends and foes guessing about its course in Iran and Syria. US President Donald Trump and senior administration officials have offered differing views on the fate of the nuclear agreement with Tehran and a possible troop withdrawal from the Syrian conflict.

The uncertainty means new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, viewed as a hawk on Iran, is likely to have much explaining to do on his first foreign trip. Pompeo was to visit Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan after attending a NATO meeting April 27 — less than 24 hours after being sworn in — in Brussels. The US State Department said the stops were chosen to reflect their “importance as key allies and partners in the region.”

In talks with French President Emmanuel Macron in Washington, Trump reiterated his rejection of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the international agreement drawn up in 2015 to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Trump called the agreement “insane.”

Macron, who presented a plan to save the JCPOA to the US president, admitted that Trump was leaning towards ripping up the accord by reintroducing US sanctions against Iran before a May 12 deadline.

Meeting with Trump just days after Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel followed up on Macron’s efforts to convince Trump not to tear up the JCPOA. Like Macron, the chancellor admitted there were flaws in the agreement, which constituted a “first step” only. “Europe and the United States ought to be in lockstep on this,” she said.

Macron’s plan would leave the JCPOA in place but also put pressure on Iran with moves designed to make sure that Tehran will never acquire nuclear weapons and end its ballistic missile programme.

European countries, including Britain, France and Germany, seem to have concluded that a transatlantic solution might delay the date of lifting of the restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment, known as “sunset clause,” and address issues that are not covered by the Iran deal, including Tehran’s ballistic development programme and its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

A confidential document cited by Reuters stated that the three countries “are concerned that Iranian missiles are being used in wars in Yemen and Syria, where Iran is directly involved in the fighting.”

US Defence Minister James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee the decision about the nuclear deal had not been made. He said the question being discussed within the administration, and between the United States and its European allies, was “whether we can repair it enough to stay in it or if the president is going to decide to withdraw from it.”

Pompeo, a prominent critic of the Iran accord, said during his Senate confirmation process that he wanted to “fix” the agreement rather than destroy it. US envoy Christopher Ford, speaking on the sidelines of a non-proliferation conference in Geneva, said Washington is considering a “supplemental agreement” to add rules and restrictions.

Iran says it is opposed to any new negotiations about the nuclear deal. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Associated Press that Tehran would not “change a line” in the agreement.

As the administration continues its internal deliberations about the JCPOA, the future of US troops in northern Syria is also unclear. A strategic plan presented by Pompeo’s predecessor Rex Tillerson in January said the United States would keep a military presence in Syria to prevent the Islamic State (ISIS) from re-emerging and to limit Iran’s influence and Russia’s role in the war-torn country.

Since then, however, Trump has said he wants to bring the 2,000 US military personnel in Syria home as soon as possible. A withdrawal would leave Kurdish forces allied with the United States open to attacks by ISIS in eastern Syria and to military pressure by Turkey, which sent troops into Syria in January.

In his talks with Macron, Trump softened his position, saying he wanted to leave a “strong and lasting footprint” in Syria, a term that suggests a continuation of US military engagement. Mattis told the Senate committee that the United States was not withdrawing “right now.”

Asked whether it would be risky to have local holding partners without US forces, Mattis replied: “I am confident that we would probably regret it.” The defence secretary said there were plans for a “re-energised” effort against ISIS in Syria and that US troops there had been reinforced with French special forces in recent weeks.