State of Iran-U.S. Diplomacy

September 4, 2019
Updated

A French initiative to broker direct talks between President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been a roller coaster since both leaders indicated a possible willingness to meet. On August 26, French President Emanuel Macron announced a “roadmap of sorts” after talks with Trump and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Biarritz. He expressed hopes of a meeting “in the coming weeks.” Trump, Rouhani and Macron are all slated to attend the U.N. General Assembly in September. 

U.S.-Iran flags

But prospects for an historic meeting—which would be the first since the 1979 revolution—have shifted from day to day, sometimes within hours. And even amid the nascent diplomacy, both Washington and Tehran have increased the pressure on each other in ways that could foil either a meeting or a new deal to end escalating tensions.

Rouhani initially indicated that he was willing to meet Trump to protect Iran’s national interests. He added a key condition, however, on August 27. “First the U.S. should act by lifting all illegal, unjust and unfair sanctions imposed on Iran,” he said in a televised speech. “Washington has the key for positive change ... So take the first step ... Without this step, this lock will not be unlocked.” 

Rouhani

Rouhani has been carefully crafting his message to satisfy both domestic and foreign audiences. The president, now deep into his second and final term, has seen his position at home weaken since the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed biting sanctions in November. He has been unable to reap tangible financial benefits, especially from Europe, for staying in the deal. He does not want to appear weak or vulnerable in the face of U.S. pressure or he risks hardliners gaining strength over centrists and reformers in the 2020 parliament elections or the 2021 presidential elections. 

But Trump seemed to rule out lifting U.S. sanctions, as originally promised in the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA. The administration seeks a more comprehensive deal with Iran that would also address its support for militant groups, regional interventions, ballistic missile program and human rights abuses – in addition to curbing its nuclear program. “We’re looking for no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles, and a longer period of time. Very simple. We can have it done in a very short period of time,” Trump said on August 26 after the G-7 summit. 

President Trump

Less than week after the summit, however, the Trump administration ramped up its “maximum pressure” campaign to push Iran to the negotiation table. It imposed new sanctions on August 28, August 29 and September 3. On September 4, the State Department offered up to $15 million for information to help disrupt the financial operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite Qods Force, which is responsible for operations abroad. “Today’s announcement is historic. It’s the first time that the United States has offered a reward for information that disrupts a government entity’s financial operations,” said the U.S. Special Envoy on Iran Brian Hook. He also announced sanctions on a smuggling network that delivered oil to the Assad regime. 

In a tweet, Zarif called the reward offer “outright blackmail.” He also referenced an invitation to meet President Trump in the Oval Office relayed by Senator Rand Paul in July. Iran’s leadership, at that time, did not approve a meeting. 

 

Should talks take place, Iran will attempt to avoid the appearance that it is making more concessions to get less than what it was promised under the JCPOA. Zarif has been considering ideas to address the Trump administration’s concerns. He told a group of journalists in July that one option would be for Iran’s parliament to codify a fatwa (religious decree) issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banning the development or use of nuclear weapons. Originally issued in 2003 and again in 2010, the fatwa is often cited by Iranian officials.

Zarif also suggested that Iran could ratify the so-called Additional Protocol earlier than planned, which would commit Iran to allow intrusive inspections of declared and undeclared nuclear sites in perpetuity. Nearly 150 nations have signed onto it. Under the JCPOA, Iran is supposed to ratify it in 2023, but Tehran might be willing to ratify it earlier if Trump could convince Congress to lift sanctions on Iran as detailed in the original deal. 

The following is a chronology of diplomatic developments since late August. 

 

August 23: The day before the G-7 summit convened, Macron held talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Paris on how to salvage the JCPOA. “France had presented some suggestions and we presented some suggestions about how to carry out (the nuclear deal) and the steps that both sides need to take,” said Zarif. He added that the talks were productive but emphasized that the nuclear deal cannot be renegotiated. 

 

August 24: Trump arrived in Biarritz, France ahead of the G-7 summit. Macron informed Trump about his discussions with Zarif. A senior French official said Macron decided to invite Zarif back to France after G-7 leaders reached “points of agreement” on Iran during a dinner. Trump said Macron asked him for approval before extending the invitation. 

August 25: Zarif spoke with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian for three hours on the sidelines of the G-7 summit. He also met with British and German officials. Macron joined for the final half hour. But Zarif did not meet with any U.S. officials, according to a White House official.

August 26: At a joint press conference with Trump, Macron said a “roadmap of sorts” for a meeting between Trump and Rouhani had been set after his discussions with Rouhani and Zarif. Macron outlined two proposals: The United States ease economic pressure on Iran—by lifting sanctions or creating a “compensation mechanism”—in exchange for Iran’s full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. Since June, Iran has taken two steps away from its obligations under the deal. In France, Trump ruled out lifting U.S. sanctions, but he said the United States might support “a short-term letter of credit or loan” to help Iran’s economy. Trump said a loan could come from “numerous countries.”

In Iran, President Rouhani expressed his openness to a meeting. “And if I knew that I was going to have a meeting with someone that would (lead to) prosperity for my country and people's problems would be resolved, I would not hesitate,” he said. “Even if the odds of success are not 90 percent but are 20 percent or 10 percent, we must move ahead with it. We should not miss opportunities.” Rouhani said Iran would leverage both diplomacy and military power in dealing with the United States and seemed to criticize hardliners who think negotiations will not benefit Iran. “Those who think that only one of these instruments is enough are wrong,” he said.

The following week, Western and Iranian sources confirmed that France had proposed extending a $15 billion credit line to Iran, if the United States at least tacitly approves. Questions remained about who would finance it. That amount of money would account for about half of the revenue Iran would usually expect to earn from one year’s worth of oil sales. It would be a significant boost to the struggling economy.

August 27: In a televised speech, Rouhani said that Iran is ready to hold talks. “But first the U.S. should act by lifting all illegal, unjust and unfair sanctions imposed on Iran.” He called on Washington to demonstrate good faith ahead of potential negotiations. “Washington has the key for positive change ... So take the first step ... Without this step, this lock will not be unlocked.” He also warned that Iran could continue to curb its compliance with the JCPOA if its economic interests are not guaranteed. Rouhani, like many other Iranian officials, reiterated that Iran would never seek nuclear weapons because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa (religious decree) in the 2003 banning them.

September 1: Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, accompanied by economists and central bank officials, traveled to Paris to discuss the French proposal that would allow export of some of Iran’s oil. The talks lasted for 10 hours, according to Iranian state media. Talks also took place in Vienna, according to Iran’s foreign ministry.

September 2: Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Abbas Mousavi, warned that Iran would take a third step in reducing its commitments to the JCPOA if Europe could not guarantee Iran’s economic interests. It breached two aspects of the JCPOA in July by surpassing limits on its low-enriched uranium stockpile and enriching uranium above the 3.67 percent limit. Iran had threatened to ramp up its nuclear program by September 6 if Europe did not make progress. “It is meaningless to continue unilateral commitments to the deal if we don’t enjoy its benefits as promised by the deal’s European parties,” Foreign Minister Zarif warned in a press conference in Moscow with his Russian counterpart.

September 4: Trump told reporters that “anything is possible” when asked about a meeting with Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly opening. “We’re going to see what happens. They want to talk. They want to make a deal,” he said. “I very much appreciate President Macron’s involvement but we’re not dealing through President Macron, we’re dealing with people directly.”

U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook announced a reward of up to $15 million for any person who provides information that could disrupt the financial operations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Qods Force. “Today’s announcement is historic. It’s the first time that the United States has offered a reward for information that disrupts a government entity’s financial operations,” said Hook. He also outlined Treasury designations of more than 25 entities and individuals and 11 vessels involved in what he described as an IRGC “oil-for-terror network” that illicitly shipped oil to Syria and elsewhere.

In a tweet, Zarif called the reward offer “outright blackmail.”

Rouhani announced Iran’s third step in rolling back its commitments to the JCPOA in a speech late at night on state television. “The Atomic Energy Organization [of Iran] is ordered to immediately start whatever is needed in the field of research and development, and abandon all the commitments that were in place regarding research and development,” he said. 

September 5: Zarif took to Twitter again to blast U.S. policy. 

 

September 6: Iran’s foreign ministry announced that it would no longer adhere to the JCPOA’s limitations on nuclear research and development. Tehran had previously warned that it would begin developing more advanced centrifuges so that it could enrich uranium faster. 

During a trip to London, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that “Iran is inching toward that place where we could have talks and hopefully it’ll play out that way.” At a press conference later in the day, he said that he based his assessment on “some of the comments made by the Iranians in the wake of the G-7.”

September 7: Iran announced that it had begun using an array of 20 IR-6 centrifuges and an array of 20 IR-4 centrifuges to enrich uranium. The IR-6 and IR-4 centrifuges are 10 and five times, respectively, as fast as the IR-1s. Under the JCPOA, Iran was only allowed to use 5,060 IR-1s. 

September 8: Two diplomatic sources told Reuters that the IAEA found uranium traces at a site that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu alleged was a “secret atomic warehouse.” The uranium was not highly enriched but called Tehran’s transparency into question. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton demanded a report as soon as possible.

 

September 9: Prime Minister Netanyahu alleged that Iran conducted experiments relating to nuclear weapons development at a site near the city of Abadeh. “When Iran realized that we uncovered the site, here’s what they did,” he said in televised remarks, showing a photograph of the site from a month later. “They destroyed the site. They just wiped it out.”

On Twitter, Foreign Minister Zarif accused Netanyahu of lying and posted a picture of a newspaper story discussing Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal in Dimona. 

 

Sept. 10 – In a tweet, Secretary Pompeo accused Iran of not fully cooperating with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.  

 

Trump tweeted that he fired his national security advisor, John Bolton, because he “disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions.” Bolton countered on Twitter that he resigned. One of the last disagreements was reportedly over whether to ease sanctions on Iran to bring Tehran to the negotiating table. Bolton had opposed the idea during a meeting in the Oval Office the day before his departure was announced. An outspoken critic of the nuclear deal, he had advocated for regime change in Tehran and use of military force against the Islamic Republic before taking office in April 2018. 

President Trump issued an executive order to update terrorism designation authorities. “The Order enhances our ability to use powerful sanctions to target terrorists and their supporters and deprive them of their financial, material, and logistical support worldwide,” said Trump. The Treasury Department designated 15 individuals and entities under the new authorities, including the IRGC Qods Force.

At a press conference to discuss the executive order’s implications, Secretary Mnuchin said Trump “is happy to take a meeting [with President Rouhani] with no preconditions. Secretary Pompeo, when asked if he could foresee a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations, said “sure.” 

Sept. 11 – In a tweet, Zarif expressed relief over Bolton’s exit from the Trump administration. But he condemned the executive order and associated sanctions on Iran’s IRGC. 

 

At the White House, reporters asked Trump if he would consider suspending sanctions to meet with the Iranians. “We’ll see what happens,” he said

Secretary Mnuchin told reporters again that Trump was prepared to meet with Rouhani with no conditions. When asked about the French proposal to extend a $15 billion credit line to Iran, he acknowledged “direct conversations” with the French. “They absolutely understand they would need waivers from the U.S., and that's not something we’re contemplating at the moment.”

September 14 – The United States accused Iran of facilitating drone attacks on two major Saudi oil facilities. "Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world's energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen," said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He added that Tehran had “pretended to engage in diplomacy” with the United States.  

Iran denied any responsibility for the attacks. On September 15, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said blaming Iran would not end the regional conflict. "Having failed at max pressure, Sec Pompeo is turning to max deceit,” Zarif tweeted. 

 

September 15  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned U.S. interference in the region. Rouhani said the United States was running a "war operation" by "supporting the UAE and Saudi Arabia, transferring weapons, and providing intelligence." 

President Trump walked back previous offers to negotiate with Tehran without preconditions. He blamed the “Fake News” for the reports, which he called “incorrect." 

 

The United Nations called for de-escalation and diplomacy following the drone attacks. “The Secretary-General condemns Saturday’s attacks on Aramco oil facilities in the Eastern Province in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia claimed by the Houthis”, and “calls upon all parties to exercise maximum restraint, prevent any escalation amid heightened tensions, and to comply at all times with International Humanitarian Law,” the United Nations said in a statement.  

September 16  Iran ruled out the possibility of a meeting between President Rouhani and President Trump at the United Nations General Assembly the following week. “Neither is such a plan on our agenda nor will such a thing happen,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi. Trump had previously said he was open to the idea of meeting with Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. summit.  

But Trump was optimistic when asked whether diplomacy with Iran had been exhausted. “No, it’s never exhausted. ... You never know what’s going to happen. ... I know they want to make a deal. ... At some point it will work out,” he told reporters.  

 

Garrett Nada, managing editor of The Iran Primer, contributed to this report. 

 

Photo Credits: Rouhani via President.ir; (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Tony Harp/Released)

 

Updated