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Vienna Meeting Is A Last-Ditch Effort To Save Iran Nuclear Deal

May 25, 2018
Originally published on May 25, 2018 12:03 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There is a last-ditch effort to save the Iran nuclear deal today. British, Chinese, French, German and Russian officials are all meeting with Iran's deputy foreign minister for the first time since the U.S. pulled out of the deal. They are hoping they can get around U.S. sanctions and will be able to keep doing business with Iran. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Vienna covering these meetings, and he is on the line with us. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So given that the United States has been fairly clear that it will impose sanctions that could affect countries doing any business with Iran, what are the options here for this group of countries? What can Europe, Russia and the U.K. do to get around that?

KENYON: Well, that really is the big question. And that's what they're going to be talking about, not just today but in upcoming meetings. The EU has already been talking about an economic and a legal package designed to mitigate the impact of this U.S. withdrawing from the deal and then also reimposing sanctions on Iran. Intensive discussions with the Iranians have started. The Iranians say it's a bit late, but they are underway.

This meeting today is basically Iran exercising one of its rights under the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA. They'll be effectively asking this joint commission to agree with them that the U.S. is now in violation of the deal. Since the deal has got no provision for withdrawing, pulling out is likely to be seen as a violation. The decision probably won't happen today but in the coming weeks. After years of seeing the West lining up against Iran and its nuclear and other activities, now we're likely to see Iran and the five other signatories to the deal lining up against Washington.

GREENE: So the backdrop to all of this as well - right, Peter? - is this new aggressive stance we heard from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington this week, threatening Iran with the strongest sanctions in history but taking it beyond a nuclear program, saying that the United States wants Iran to change its entire behavior throughout the Middle East. What has the Iranian response been to that?

KENYON: Well, pretty much complete rejection - the Iranians are saying if this nuclear agreement does fail, there's a growing sentiment in Iran to not only stop restricting their nuclear activities but to revisit the issue of whether they should actively pursue more nuclear activities, possibly including a weapon. A senior Iranian official today says this agreement is like a patient in the intensive care unit. And trying to do other things, like talk about Iran's missile program, which the U.S. wants, or its behavior in the region, is a complete non-starter. And what Iran is looking for is this set of guarantees from Europe, Russia and China that it can keep doing business, be a greater part of the world economy despite the U.S. pullout. There's just no trust left at all with the U.S., this official says, and no chance of negotiations anytime soon.

GREENE: So is this essentially presenting a choice to Europe and these countries? I mean, they have so much at stake in their relationship with the United States - probably more than they do with Iran. I mean, is that the dynamic we're seeing? It's sort of like make a choice.

KENYON: Well, yes. And while there is deep frustration with the Trump administration about this pullout and the coming sanctions, you're right. When you do the math, the size of the American market is so much greater than Iran that if companies or governments are forced to choose between them, it's kind of hard to see many opting for business with Iran. Maybe some smaller European and Asian companies that don't do much business with America might go for it - but certainly not the big multinationals. We've already seen a couple warn that they'll be pulling out if they don't get waivers. Iranian officials here say they're going to give the Europeans a few more weeks to come up with this rescue plan, and then they'll decide whether to stay in themselves.

GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Vienna. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.