US-Iran talks at UN in doubt while sabre-rattling continues

Trump wrote on Twitter: “Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the United States.”
Sunday 12/08/2018
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting in Moscow, last April.   (AFP)
Embattled diplomacy. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting in Moscow, last April. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The recent reinstatement of US sanctions on Iran is ratcheting up pressure for the two countries to reach an agreement to avoid economic action against Iranian oil and natural gas that could cause international disruptions and deeper damage to Iran’s economy.

As US President Donald Trump reinstated sanctions August 7 on some sectors of the Iranian economy, he and his top advisers said they were willing to meet Iran’s leaders without preconditions. Iranian officials publicly dismissed Trump’s outreach and minimised the effect of the sanctions but left the door open to conversations with US diplomats.

The posturing generated speculation that US and Iranian diplomats might meet at the UN General Assembly next month. Private discussions between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are more likely than a head-of-state meeting, such as Trump has had with the leaders of Russia and North Korea, analysts said.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a summit but if there were contacts at the UN between Zarif and Pompeo, that would be very positive,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative. “I would imagine the Iranians are putting out feelers, maybe through Omanis, to see if there is anything to talk about to stave off the oil sanctions.”

The Jerusalem Post reported that a high-level meeting between Iran and the United States may take place on the sidelines of the General Assembly. An unidentified UN official told the Post: “We think it’s worth making the effort to take this opportunity to push towards a meeting.”

In a New York Times article July 18, a top aide to Iranian President Hassan Rohani said Trump asked for a meeting with Rohani eight times at last year’s General Assembly but Iran rejected the requests.

After the US reinstated sanctions, leaders of both countries continued sabre-rattling. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a message to Iranians: “With regard to our situation, do not be worried at all. Nobody can do anything.”

Trump wrote on Twitter: “Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the United States.”

The sanctions reinstated by Trump prohibit Iran from using US dollars, which are the main currency for oil sales and international financial transactions, and bar purchases of Iranian-made automobiles and Iranian graphite, aluminium, steel, coal and software used in industrial processes.

The sanctions had been waived under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal signed by then US President Barack Obama.

Iran’s economy has suffered since Trump announced in May that he would withdraw the United States from the nuclear agreement. US officials said they hope the reinstated sanctions will pressure Iran to negotiate a comprehensive deal that addresses its nuclear programme and issues such as development of ballistic missiles, support for terrorists and other “malign activities.”

“The results of Washington’s significant economic pressure on Tehran are showing,” Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American analyst wrote in the Atlantic. “Iran’s currency has lost two-thirds of its value and shortages have caused rampant inflation and unemployment. This, in turn, has stoked popular frustration and despair, fuelling ongoing protests across the country.”

Nasr said that, although the demonstrations do not threaten to force the ouster of the Iranian leadership, “they could further embolden Washington and further weaken Iran’s hand in negotiations.”

Slavin said: “This is one of the toughest times they’ve faced. I don’t see regime change but ordinary people are going to suffer and they’re going to blame both the US and the Iranian leadership.”

The reinstatement of oil sanctions, scheduled for November 5, will cause much more damage to Iran’s economy and will pose a deeper diplomatic challenge for the United States as it fields requests from allies such as Turkey, Japan and South Korea seeking permission to continue importing Iranian oil and natural gas.

Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez on August 8 said a Turkish delegation was in the United States negotiating “a series of matters, including the sanctions issue.” Turkey is heavily dependent on natural gas from Iran and indicated it would continue imports after the United States reinstates sanctions.

US officials continued to duck questions about possible waivers. A senior Trump administration official discussing the sanctions was asked whether any waiver had been approved and if a decision had been made on Japan’s request to continue importing Iranian oil. “We are not looking to grant exemptions or waivers,” the official replied, “but we do and are glad to discuss requests and look at requests on a case-by-case basis.”