US negotiator: 'We will see' if Trump can be sold on Iran deal fix

Article Summary
Washington's chief representative to US-European talks on the Iran nuclear deal said that while progress is being made in trans-Atlantic discussions, it's unclear if an agreement will be reached.

WASHINGTON — The lead US negotiator said today that transatlantic consultations on toughening policy toward Iran were making progress, but he offered no guarantees that US President Donald Trump would accept any agreement that might be reached.

“First we have to reach an agreement with the Europeans,” Brian Hook, the State Department policy planning chief, said on a call with journalists today. “If we can reach an agreement, then that will be presented to the president by the secretary of state and the national security adviser, and then he will make a decision on whether he wants to remain in the [Iran nuclear] deal or stop waiving sanctions.”

Trump vowed in January that he would not renew US nuclear-related Iran sanctions waivers at the next deadline of May 12 unless the Europeans agree to a list of demands. His demands include a more robust interpretation of the International Atomic Energy Agency mandate to inspect Iran sites; preventing Iran from developing long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles; and, most problematic for reaching a US-European understanding, extending the duration of strict limits on Iran’s enrichment capacity indefinitely. Under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), those limits ease — or “sunset” — after a decade to allow Iran to expand its enrichment capacity.

“We have had constructive talks with the Europeans toward a supplemental agreement,” Hook said. “But I cannot predict whether we will reach an agreement with them or not.”

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“We will see,” Hook said.

Hook led the US delegation to a third round of talks last week in Berlin with diplomats from Britain, France and Germany — the three European powers, or E3, that helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal. Those parties then attended the quarterly meeting in Vienna on March 16 of the eight-member Joint Commission overseeing implementation of the landmark deal that Trump has repeatedly called “terrible” and threatened to withdraw from.

Trump, meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on Tuesday, did not reveal what he planned to do.

"The Iran deal is coming up soon and you will see what will happen,” Trump told White House pool journalists in his meeting with the Saudi crown prince Tuesday. "Iran hasn't been treating that part of the world or the world appropriately.”

“The president has identified sunsets, inspections and ICBMs,” Hook said on the call today. “And so those are the three areas of focus for us. … We have a very good interagency team that’s working on this to be faithful to the president’s instructions on negotiations.”

Hook said his instructions on seeking a supplementary deal with the Europeans to try to toughen measures toward Iran had not changed since Trump unceremoniously fired his boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a tweet last week. As to whether he himself will continue as policy planning chief, Hook said he serves at the pleasure of the president, and he continues to advance the administration’s foreign policy. He said he had been part of the team briefing Tillerson’s nominated successor, CIA chief Mike Pompeo, to facilitate his confirmation process.

“The only guidance the president gave was to reach agreement with the E3,” Hook said. “I won’t speculate beyond May 12.”

Hook said he requested and held a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Joint Commission meeting with the Iranians, led by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, to demand the release of US citizens being detained in Iran. Citing the sensitivity of the issue, he declined to say whether the Iranians had agreed to set up a separate humanitarian or consular channel to deal with issue of their detained nationals or a potential prisoner swap.

Hook said the Iranians complained in the Joint Commission meeting about the Trump administration discouraging foreign countries from investing in Iran and said it is hurting their economy. They also raised complaints, he said, that the United States is not fulfilling civil aviation licenses that were written into the JCPOA. He acknowledged that no new civil aviation licenses have been granted under the Trump administration, but said the ones issued by the Treasury Department under the Barack Obama administration are still in effect.

“The Iranians had a number of complaints about licenses, especially around civil aviation licenses to Iran Air and other airlines,” Hook said. “And what I said to them was: You use your commercial airlines to move terrorists and weapons around the Middle East, including to Syria, and we will not issue licenses at the expense of our national security. And so I encouraged them to make the kind of reforms to their civil aviation and to their economy that would then put us in a better position.”

Hook reluctantly acknowledged that Iran is in “technical compliance” with the nuclear deal. “My understanding is that they are in technical compliance with their commitments under the JCPOA,” he said. But he said that Iran’s support of militant proxy and terror groups such as Hezbollah is contributing to the destabilization of the region.

Hook suggested he considered the encounter with the Iranians at the Joint Commission meeting useful for all sides to air their views.

Previously, under the Trump administration, the US team at the quarterly Joint Commission meetings had been led by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, a career foreign service officer who has announced his intention to retire when a successor is in place.

“This was an opportunity for us in Vienna to listen to any concerns that the Iranians had about us meeting our end of the deal,” Hook said. “The Iranians complained that this administration is warning other nations about the dangers of doing business in Iran and that this is hurting their economy. And what I said in response was that Iran’s opaque economy makes it hard for investors to know whether they are supporting commerce or supporting terrorism, and I said that Iran needs to stop sponsoring terrorism, stop destabilizing the Middle East and overhaul its banking and business sectors.”

“It’s not America’s job to make up for the shortcomings of Iranian policies,” Hook said.

Araghchi warned European powers that agreeing to measures to appease Trump could erode the deal and lead to its unraveling.

“If in case some European countries are pursuing actions, such as new non-nuclear sanctions on Iran to appease the US president, they are making a mistake in their calculations and they will see the direct impact on JCPOA and its viability,” Araghchi was quoted as saying by Iran’s IRNA news agency.

European diplomats said they were engaging in the negotiations with the United States in good faith, but acknowledged uncertainty about what Trump would decide to do.

“I think the US administration is still committed to this,” a European diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said. “We are engaging in these consultations in good faith. But we are all very aware there are no guarantees.”

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Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor's diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. She has written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. On Twitter: @LRozen

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