OSAKA, Japan — President Donald Trump arrived at a gathering of world leaders Thursday searching for support for a new deal to curtail an increasingly aggressive Iran. He’s not likely to find any.
Not only do other countries still support a 2015 nuclear pact, they’re skeptical Trump can strike a better agreement within the time constraints of his fast-approaching reelection campaign, especially after Iran recently proclaimed the end of diplomacy with the U.S.
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The pressure is on. Iran threatened to violate limits set under the 2015 international nuclear agreement, angry at Trump for unilaterally pulling out of the pact and for slapping harsh sanctions on the country. The move threatens to kill the deal for good, leaving the global community without any comprehensive restrictions on Iran’s nuclear ambitions — let alone its funding of violent proxy groups in the region activities — activities Trump has long said he wants to pursue as part of an expansive agreement.
“The Iranians believe a gamble on Democrats winning the White House would be worth the risk of filibustering the Trump administration,” said Michael Rubin, a former Defense Department official who now serves as a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “In short, there’s a cost to us when there is no partisan solidarity on the foreign policy front.”
Trump abruptly canceled a retaliatory strike on Iran last week after it shot down an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone, opting instead for new sanctions against Iranian leaders. The sanctions were designed to pressure Iran to negotiate, but Iran’s fiery response shows they may make diplomacy more difficult — at least initially.
At the G-20 summit, a gathering of the world’s largest economies, Trump will meet with the leaders of three of the countries that signed onto the landmark 2015 agreement with Iran — Germany, China, Russia — as well as Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, one of Trump’s only allies for tougher action against Iran. The deal’s other signatories, Britain and France, will also have delegations there.
Trump administration officials say the conference is an opportunity for the president to make his pitch in person.
“This is a chance for the president to engage with a number of different international leaders, among our closest partners and allies, to obtain their support and to have discussions about how we can encourage Iran to enter into negotiations and to respond to the president’s diplomacy with diplomacy, instead of terrorism and nuclear blackmail,” said one senior administration official.
But as he discussed a potential new deal over the past two weeks, Trump has intensely focused on Iran’s possible pursuit of nuclear weapons while also occasionally mentioning the country’s funding of terrorist groups.
“I think they want to negotiate,” Trump said on “Meet the Press” Sunday. “And I think they want to make a deal. And my deal is nuclear.”
The subtle shift in his language has stunned analysts and former officials, who say he’s signaling that he wants a deal that closely mirrors the 2015 agreement he spent years attacking. He also said this week that he would negotiate with Iran with no preconditions.
Trump’s recent rhetoric stands in contrast to his more hawkish aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, who continue to focus on a list of 12 far-reaching demands for Iran that address nuclear weapons but also ballistic missiles and terrorism. Critics have said that Iran would have to change regimes to meet the demands.
“The U.S. internal views about a deal are split and that means getting to a consensus position for talks would be hard, especially if some in the [U.S. government] believe that the only deal worth having is one in which there is no Iranian nuclear program to speak of,” said Richard Nephew, a former sanctions expert at the State Department and National Security Council who helped negotiate the 2105 deal before moving to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Trump withdrew from the 2015 agreement — which gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for the country curbing its nuclear program — in May 2018. Even without the U.S., though, the deal has remained intact, albeit in increasingly tenuous fashion.
Iran has said it could exceed the deal’s restrictions on stockpiles of low-enriched uranium as soon as Thursday. The country has also threatened to enrich its uranium beyond the limits in the deal, getting it closer to having the capability to make a nuclear weapon.
Adding tension to the situation were several attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman that the Trump administration has blamed on Iran.
Before he left Washington, Trump again criticized the agreement, noting some of the deal’s terms have expiration dates and arguing it doesn’t allow observers to visit certain non-nuclear facilities without requesting access and allowing a short delay.
“The deal was a horrible deal,” he told reporters at the White House. “It was no good. It was no good. … They would have had a clear path to a nuclear weapon. We’re not going to allow that to happen. You can’t do it.”
Still, U.S. allies remain firmly committed to the agreement. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, would be willing to discuss another deal, but only if the initial pact stays in place, a senior European Union diplomat said.
“This situation is very difficult for us, for the EU, to follow the U.S.,” the official said. What the countries remaining in the 2015 deal can do is mainly “lay the ground for talks between the U.S. and Iran,” the official added.
“While American allies often echo Washington’s criticisms of Iran’s destabilizing missile, military and other security policies, they remain doggedly attached to the [Iran] nuclear deal,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which opposed the 2015 deal and has advised the Trump administration. “This creates contradictions in their Iran policy, which impedes American coalition-building on Iran.”
Trump has repeatedly shown during 2½ years in office that he’s willing to strike out on his own on foreign policy if he doesn’t get support. But the go-it-alone approach doesn’t always deliver the outcome Trump wants. .
Tom Bossert, who served as Trump’s homeland security adviser until last year, said sanctions are the president’s tool of choice. But, he noted, Trump’s Iranian sanctions are intended to convey the message that he wants to talk — even if no one else does. “He’s imposing sanctions for a broader purpose,” Bossert said.
So far, though, it hasn’t achieved that purpose. And critics fear it could mean war, even if it’s inadvertent. Before Trump aborted the retaliatory strike on Iran last week, the Pentagon announced it would dispatch 1,000 more American troops to the Middle East, supplementing 1,000 troops sent to the region last month.
“Trump himself wants diplomacy,” said Thomas Wright, a geopolitics expert with the center-left Brookings Institution. “But it’s been sort of bewildering to all of us as to what those talks would actually look like.”
Jacopo Barigazzi in Brussels contributed to this report.