Special Iran Nuclear Meeting Exposes Discord Over U.S. Strategy
By Jonathan Tirone
The U.S. called for an extraordinary meeting of atomic inspectors to ramp up pressure against Iran after it violated key restrictions set by the landmark nuclear accord. What it’s likely to get is pushback from Russia, China and other nations who blame the Trump administration for precipitating a crisis that has threatened to spill over into war.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-member board of governors meets Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. local time in Vienna. American diplomats asked for the session after IAEA monitors confirmed Iran had exceeded enriched-uranium limits set under its 2015 deal with world powers.
While the State Department expects the meeting to marshal support for its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, diplomats from other nations said they may argue that the IAEA isn’t the right forum to handle the dispute.
With accusations flying, the get-together is likely to highlight the growing international discord over how to contain a diplomatic crisis that has disrupted shipping and threatened to escalate into a new war in the world’s largest oil-producing region.
China and Russia have criticized President Donald Trump for withdrawing from the accord a year ago and say his administration is being hypocritical in blaming Iran for its violations after unilaterally imposing sanctions on vast swathes of the oil exporter’s economy.
“Since last week U.S. behaves as if it were a strong supporter of the deal demanding that Iran must strictly comply with it,” tweeted Russia’s IAEA Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov on Sunday. “There is a way out of this paradox: stop ruining the deal through sanctions.”
France, Germany and the U.K. issued a joint statement Tuesday saying that while they were concerned by Iran’s violations, it’s the job of the remaining participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear accord is known, to mediate disputes.
“These compliance issues must be addressed within the framework of the JCPOA,” they said.
The IAEA meeting takes place as French President Emmanuel Macron’s top diplomatic adviser visits Iran for discussions, seeking to persuade the Islamic Republic to reverse course.
French officials say they see room for compromise as Iran’s infringements have been carefully calibrated and Trump has underlined his desire for new talks. Iran’s dialogue with Europe never stopped but it said it won’t speak to the U.S. unless sanctions are eased first.
Tehran’s contraventions have increased pressure on European nations who’ve urged Iran to stick with the deal even as they struggle to find a mechanism that would allow it to keep selling its oil. They’ve come up with a trade vehicle called Instex that would protect some trade with Iran from U.S. penalties but would initially be limited to food and drugs.
Iran is producing oil at the slowest clip since 1986, making U.S. sanctions as effective as the devastating Iraq-Iran war that ended more than 30 years ago. The measures have hit the currency, fueled inflation and hobbled growth.
U.S. officials say the squeeze is meant to push Iran to negotiate a broader deal that also limits its missile program and support for proxy militias in the region. But the approach has weakened the hand of moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who called Wednesday’s meeting “ridiculous”, and prompted hardliners to dig in.
"The Americans, on one hand, say the JCPOA was a very bad deal, even the worst deal and they left it,” he was quoted as saying by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. “On the other hand, when Iran diminishes some of its commitments everyone expressed worry.”
A Trump administration official said the IAEA meeting was “highly appropriate.” U.S. diplomats will underscore that any expansion of enrichment activities is unacceptable, according to the official, who asked not to be identified in return for discussing the agenda of the private meeting.
Critically, Iran has continued allowing IAEA inspectors to conduct what Director General Yukiya Amano calls “the most robust verification system in existence anywhere in the world.” The safeguards account for gram-level amounts of enriched uranium to ensure they aren’t diverted for weapons. The agreement gave monitors unique powers in Iran, where they called record snap inspections last year.
China’s IAEA envoy, Wang Qun, accused the U.S. of using “unilateral coercive measures” at a meeting in the Austrian capital earlier this month. By reimposing sanctions, Washington itself could stand accused of violating the United Nations charter and international law, he said.
“The United States will be trying to create pressure out of the fact that Iran has ceased implementing some of the restrictions which the agreement requires,” said Peter Jenkins, a former U.K. diplomat who helped lead nuclear negotiations with Rouhani before he became president. “This is very different from failing to comply with IAEA safeguards obligations.”