Iran Crisis Countdown on Pause as Diplomacy Kicks Into Gear

With U.S. elections just two months away, China, Europe and Russia played for time in an attempt to prevent the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran from descending into even deeper conflict.

Iran Crisis Countdown on Pause as Diplomacy Kicks Into Gear

The commission responsible for resolving disputes under the Iran nuclear deal met Tuesday in the Vienna palace where the landmark agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was sealed’ five years ago. It was the first meeting of envoys from signatory states since the United Nations Security Council rejected U.S. attempts to restore international sanctions, and follows new impetus to widen nuclear inspections inside the Persian Gulf country.

“All the delegations expressed their commitment to the JCPOA,” Fu Cong, China’s top non-proliferation diplomat, said in a press briefing. The countries coordinated how they’ll deal with U.S. threats to snap back international sanctions and discussed expanding access to the European Union’s Instex payment channel, which was designed’ to enable companies to avoid American penalties, he said.

Though American diplomats weren’t in the meetings at the Palais Coburg -- Washington pulled out of the deal in 2018 -- the U.S. presidential election just 63 days away weighed on the decisions.

China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia and the U.K. still want to keep the 2015 accord, which was supposed to cap Tehran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. President Donald Trump’s decision to quit the pact and reimpose U.S. sanctions threatened to scuttle the agreement. Iran responded by violating limits on the amount of nuclear fuel it’s allowed’ to produce under the deal, forcing European participants to contain repercussions by triggering the agreement’s so-called Dispute Resolution Mechanism.

Tuesday’s meeting was a follow-up to that move.

All of the countries present rejected the Trump administration attempts to snap back UN sanctions on Iran because the U.S. “had not participated in any JCPOA-related activities” since ceasing to take part in the accord, the EU chair of the meeting reported late Tuesday. The deal remains “a key element of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture,” read the statement.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi also met with International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, according to state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. Iran agreed last week to allow international monitors to visit two sites that may have hosted atomic work two decades ago. Russia’s IAEA envoy Mikhail Ulyanov said following the meeting that all sides are “determined to do their best to preserve” the nuclear deal, according to a post on Twitter.

“The tension had been building over the summer but they’re now in a better position than they were two months ago to buy some more time,” said Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, a director at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, who advises diplomats on policy. Pressure in the Gulf has risen over the last year as tit-for-tat ship seizures and facility attacks have threatened to spill into open military conflict.

Three Dates to Watch
Sept. 20      The date that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo says the U.S. is unilaterally ready to snap back, even in the absence of Security Council deliberation
Oct. 18        The date the arms embargo against Iran expires, permitting Tehran to import and export conventional weapons
Nov. 3  The U.S. presidential election. Trump remains opposed to the JCPOA. Democratic challenger Joe Biden has suggested he’d consider rejoining the accord
China’s Fu, a director general in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also called on Iran to “come back into full compliance” with the nuclear accord, promising it “economic benefits” in return.

The middle way that European countries have been trying to adhere to has become increasingly difficult, according to two of the bloc’s officials who asked not to be identified’. The European Union wants to maintain the nuclear deal while continuing to deny Iran access to conventional weapons. It’s increasingly focused’ on the U.S. election calendar and the possibility that a Democratic victory in November could revive what’s left of the multilateral accord.

“It is quite amazing that the JCPOA, even if just hanging by a thread, is still in existence,” Wendy Sherman, former U.S. nuclear envoy and one of the chief architects of the 2015 deal, said in an interview. “We thought that the JCPOA could have this kind of durability but I don’t think anyone quite knew.”


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