US, Iran drift apart as tough questions remain

Tehran is sustaining its defiance of the United States and has engaged in what can only be seen as an escalatory strategy that has raised alarms across the region.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Playing for time. Abbas Araghchi, political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, speaks to the media after the meeting of the JCPOA signatories, Vienna, July 28. (AFP)
Playing for time. Abbas Araghchi, political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, speaks to the media after the meeting of the JCPOA signatories, Vienna, July 28. (AFP)

DUBAI - Diplomats from Iran, Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and the European Union met in Vienna for emergency talks aimed at reducing tensions involving Iran and saving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name for the nuclear deal, from collapse.

Recent months have seen tensions between Iran and the United States soar and a growing number of countries have been pulled into the dangerous standoff.

US President Donald Trump carried through his promise of withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 and initiated strict economic sanctions against Iran as punitive measures for its wider regional activities, particularly in Yemen and Syria.

Tehran is sustaining its defiance of the United States and, arguably for lack of alternative options, engaged in what can only be considered an escalatory strategy that raised alarms across the region, particularly in the Gulf.

The emergency talks convened after Iran impounded the British-flagged Stena Impero, which Iranian authorities claimed was “violating international maritime rules.” Stena Impero’s seizure was Iran’s retaliation for British forces participating in the impounding of Iranian tanker Grace I, which was believed to be destined for Syria in contravention of EU sanctions against Damascus.

Before the emergency talks, Europe was under scrutiny from various sides for its apparent lack of action and unclear policy positions. It appeared as though Europe had taken the back seat but the seizure of Stena Impero may have been a turning point. Following that incident, the United Kingdom initiated efforts to secure a Europe-led naval task force for securing the Gulf’s strategic waterways.

A statement issued earlier by the United Kingdom, France and Germany mentioned the partners were “deeply troubled” by events in the Gulf and noted it was “time to act responsibly and seek a path to stop the escalation of tensions and resume dialogue.”

The United Kingdom ruled out a quid pro quo exchange with Iran of the seized oil tankers, insisting on keeping its principled stance and commitment to a rules-based international order. Arriving at the emergency talks, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi stated that Tehran considered British proposals for a European-led naval mission to escort tankers through the Strait of Hormuz “provocative.”

Tehran has looked towards Europe, whose decade-long diplomacy efforts culminated in the JCPOA, with great expectations as Washington’s economic pressure suffocates Iran’s economy.

Araghchi described the atmosphere at the Vienna negotiations as “constructive,” the talks as “good” and said that, although many issues are to be resolved, the parties agreed to “lots of commitments” on key issues. Another positive sign was a general agreement for a higher-level meeting of foreign ministers.

The EU payment system meant to enable European businesses to conduct non-dollar trade with Iran without breaking US sanctions, known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), completed its first transactions. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said once some “bureaucratic procedures” were completed INSTEX would go online in full mode.

It remains to be seen what kind of strategic effect INSTEX will make and, crucially, how it can develop ahead. Iran is pushing for INSTEX to cater for oil trade, which is not covered by the structure. This will be a key sticking point on the agenda between Iran and the European Union moving forward. Moscow is keen to join INSTEX and China is likely to also want access.

Reports indicated that Chinese companies have continued purchasing Iranian oil and state-run energy company Zhuhai Zhenrong is facing US sanctions because of this. European officials are said to be critical of recent US moves against Iran and China urged the United States to abandon its “maximum pressure” campaign and advised against creating obstacles against saving the JCPOA.

The United States is signalling otherwise. Washington announced it would renew sanctions waivers against Iran’s nuclear activities, which allow international cooperation at the Bushehr nuclear plant, the Fordow enrichment facility, the Arak nuclear complex and the Tehran Research Reactor but the goal of ending the waivers was reaffirmed. Days later, Washington imposed sanctions against Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a controversial move.

The gauntlet involving Iran is wide open as international players take positions across a series of core issues. Ultimately Iran and the United States will need to reach some degree of implicit understanding for any future scenario to be workable however their drift apart continues. The talks in Vienna herald much needed albeit small, tentative progress but difficult questions lie ahead for negotiators.