“Let me underline one thing that must be self-evident to all in the world,” she (European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini) said. “In this moment, having a nuclear-non-proliferation agreement that is delivering is quite a strategic instrument in the hands of the international community. It’s not an irrelevant part of global security.” She added, “We already have one potential nuclear crisis. We definitely do not need to go into a second one. This is an agreement that prevented a nuclear program. And potentially prevented a military intervention. Let’s not forget that.”–Robin Wright
On Monday, I sat in One U.N. Plaza, the high-rise hotel across the street from the United Nations, and watched a parade of European diplomats head into meetings with Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani. Boris Johnson, the blond-mopped British Foreign Minister, sauntered through the lobby in deep conversation with his delegation. The new French President, Emmanuel Macron, led by a military officer wearing the distinctive stovepipe kepi, and accompanied by a dozen aides and several photographers, scurried by next. One by one, the Europeans came to confer with the leader of a country that has been ostracized by the outside world, for decades, as a pariah. No longer. The outside world now comes calling on Iran.
During his campaign and since taking office, President Trump has targeted the Islamic Republic with some of his most wrathful language. At his U.N. début, on Tuesday, he called Iran “reckless” and a “corrupt dictatorship” on a “path of poverty, bloodshed, and terror.” He has repeatedly implied that he wants to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated by the world’s six major powers in 2015. As required by Congress, the President must certify every ninety days that Iran is complying with the deal. Trump has certified twice but has indicated that he might change course in mid-October, which would undermine the most significant (whether you like the terms or not) non-proliferation agreement in more than a quarter century.
This week, Trump has taunted the press and tantalized other heads of state with hints about his intentions. On Wednesday, he told reporters (three times), “I have decided.” Asked for details, he said (twice), “I’ll let you know.” Not even the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, could get him to share his decision, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, told reporters.
Trump’s tough talk and sophomoric antics may have had the opposite effect of what he intended, however. Across the board, the world’s other major powers, most of America’s closest allies, and the vast majority of governments at the United Nations this week made clear that they favor the deal. They are siding with Iran this time.
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu working hand and glove to scuttle to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A deal with Iran. As far as Trump is concerned, all Obama deals are useless. He feels he can do better. Really?–Din Merican
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, hosted a meeting of the foreign ministers of Iran and the six signatories to the deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A.—late Wednesday. It was the first time that Tillerson had met his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Afterward, Mogherini was blunt. “The nuclear agreement is working. It’s delivering. It’s functioning,” she told a press conference at the United Nations. Eight reports by the U.N. nuclear watchdog—the most recent of which was released earlier this month—have verified Iran’s full compliance, she said. The consequences of abandoning or scrapping the deal would be costly.
“Let me underline one thing that must be self-evident to all in the world,” she said. “In this moment, having a nuclear-non-proliferation agreement that is delivering is quite a strategic instrument in the hands of the international community. It’s not an irrelevant part of global security.” She added, “We already have one potential nuclear crisis. We definitely do not need to go into a second one. This is an agreement that prevented a nuclear program. And potentially prevented a military intervention. Let’s not forget that.”
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini
In an indirect jibe at Trump, Mogherini noted that the agreement, forged after two years of often tortuous diplomacy, “doesn’t belong to one country.” It was endorsed by a Security Council resolution. “As such, all member states of the United Nations are considered to be bound to the implementation,” she said. “It belongs to the international community.”
In his U.N. address, President Macron also rejected Trump’s view of the Iran deal. “Renouncing it would be a grave error, not respecting it would be irresponsible, because it is a good accord that is essential to peace at a time where the risk of a conflagration cannot be excluded,” he said.
Macron also told a group of journalists in New York that he had been “extremely direct” with Trump when they talked, on Tuesday. “You want to kill it because it is an Obama agreement,” Macron said he argued. “But what else do we have? Nothing. We would be put in the North Korea situation.” During her meeting with Trump, Prime Minister May also reaffirmed Britain’s “strong commitment to the deal” as “vitally important for regional security,” according to a British press release.
Russia and China, which both have strategic, diplomatic, or commercial alliances with Tehran, are two of the signatories, and have long favored making a deal with Iran. The Europeans, who account for all the other major players, are important because they have been in sync with the United States since the Iranian Revolution, in 1979. European nations and the U.S. have been repeatedly burned by Iran in the past, and have similar serious, ongoing issues: Iran’s missile tests, its support for extremists, its human-rights abuses, its detentions of their citizens, and a growing pattern of Iranian intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts, notably in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Yet, for the first time in almost four decades, the Europeans appear willing to break from Washington.
Tillerson said that his first encounter with Iran was “a good opportunity to meet, shake hands.” He added, “There was no yelling. We didn’t throw shoes at one another. It was not an angry tone at all. It was a very, very matter-of-fact exchange of how we see this agreement very, very differently.” Tillerson even offered up a compliment. Iranians, he said, “are a very well-educated, very sophisticated population, so their leaders similarly are well educated, very sophisticated. And Foreign Minister Zarif certainly is in that category.”
Trump’s conflict with Iran boils down to differing interpretations of the second sentence in the preface to the deal—which is to say, it is over eighteen words in a document totaling a hundred and fifty-nine pages. That sentence says that the six major powers and Iran “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” The Trump Administration charges that Iran has repeatedly violated this sentence in the accord—and, thus, the whole deal.
“Regrettably, since the agreement was confirmed, we have seen anything but a more peaceful, stable region,” Tillerson said, on Wednesday. “The technical aspects” may have been honored by Tehran, he said, “but, in the broader context, the aspiration has not.” That’s the legal framework behind Trump’s “decision of whether we find the JCPOA to continue to serve the security interests of the American people or not.”
The President is also concerned with sunset clauses that allow Iran to eventually resume some activities, ranging from a decade to a quarter century. Mogherini countered that argument, too. She pulled out her copy of the blue-bound text and read the third sentence of the preface, which follows the phrase the U.S. disputes: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”
I saw Rouhani twice during his three-day stay. The first time was after the parade of visiting foreign leaders finished and he settled in for a session with former U.S. officials, including a former congressman, U.S. think tanks, and journalists. The second was at a press conference after his own speech to the General Assembly, on Wednesday. At both, he was provided U.S. Secret Service protection as a visiting head of state. It was a striking scene—with the agents in their colorful ties and the Iranian delegation tie-less, a symbol of their rejection of Western influence.
Rouhani, a cleric and political centrist who did his doctorate in Scotland, was recently reëlected, in May, with seventy-three per cent of the vote—more than a million votes more than he won in his first election, in 2013. The current Iranian leadership clearly feels more confident in its dealings with the world, after years of officially shunning both East and West—and being shunned in return.
On the U.N.’s global stage, clothed in the white turban and robes of a cleric, Rouhani threw his own zingers back at Trump. “It will be a great pity if this agreement were to be destroyed by rogue newcomers to the world of politics,” he said. “The ignorant, absurd, and hateful rhetoric, filled with ridiculously baseless allegations, that was uttered before this august body yesterday didn’t befit an organization established to promote peace and respect among nations.” He vowed that Iran would not be the first to breach the nuclear agreement.
In mini-summits among leaders in New York this week, there has been a lot of talk about possible compromises, such as keeping the deal but launching new negotiations to extend the timelines of the sunset clauses. On Wednesday, I asked Rouhani if Iran would be willing to change any of the deal’s terms. “The J.C.P.O.A. has been finalized and there’s going to be no return, renegotiation, or changes vis-a-vis this agreement,” he told me. “Most of the time was taken—days and weeks and months of negotiations and dialogue—was spent on dates. Of course the dates we insisted be the shortest possible, and the other side insisted be as long as possible, but in fact we came up with a rational time frame that was agreed upon by both sides. So this agreement is not something that someone can touch. This is a building from the frame of which, if you take out a single brick, the entire building will collapse.”
Rouhani, a former national-security adviser and nuclear negotiator, warned that a U.S. exit from the deal would mean “that our hand is completely open to take any action that we see as beneficial to our country,” including enriching uranium. Given Trump’s language of late, he said, the options are already being intensely debated in Tehran. Iran has long wanted to produce its own fuel for nuclear reactors, as it diversifies its energy sources. The world’s major powers have never trusted Iran’s pledge not to develop a nuclear bomb, whatever its promises. One of the deal’s primary goals is to prevent Iran from transferring its enriched uranium to fuel a bomb.
Rouhani also warned that Trump would pay the bigger price if he officially challenges the deal, noting Washington has the support of only one other leader—Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. More than a hundred and ninety countries stand by the nuclear accord. “If the new officials in the United States believe that the violation of the J.C.P.O.A. will bring pressure on Iran, they are completely and absolutely mistaken,” Rouhani said in the press conference. Globally, he predicted, U.S. diplomacy would become suspect if the Americans walked away from an accord that they had the largest hand in crafting.
Instead, the Iranian leader told a packed press conference, “The position of Iran throughout the world will be stronger and better than before.” That may be a gross overstatement, given the country’s many other policies that are widely considered dangerous for both Iran’s people and the outside world. The regime still holds several American citizens and green-card holders; some, including a former U.N. staffer, have been sentenced to long prison terms for espionage. But Iran was certainly getting a sympathetic ear at the United Nations, where America’s allies were making Iran’s case to the Trump Administration.