When Iran's president and foreign minister arrived in New York a year ago for the opening of the UN General Assembly, they were on the rise. At press conferences and television appearances, they put President Trump in an unreliable deal, and European leaders sided with the pair in a desperate effort to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal after the United States renounced it.
This year could not be more different.
Suddenly President Hassan Rouhani and his witty, often scathing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are on the defensive. They are denying any Iranian involvement in the destruction of two large Saudi oil facilities, a claim that even former Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the nuclear deal four years ago and became his biggest advocate, considers it exaggeration. Iran, he said, was behind the attack "one way or another."
Iran is now admitting how much damage American-led sanctions have done to its economy – breaking the currency and turning a boomlet into recession.
Zarif, while reserving most of his anger to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom he called the "defender of war," has now turned against the Europeans. After pledging to preserve the nuclear deal, offsetting much of the revenue Iran was losing, the Europeans "failed each other" of their specific commitments, he said at a meeting with reporters on Sunday.
"They think they need some green light from the US," Zarif said, suggesting that Britain, France and Germany have kept it with promises they had little intention of keeping, if it meant further undermining their angry relationship with the Trump administration. . .
Last year, three months after Trump left the nuclear deal, Iran reached the General Assembly trying to insert a wedge between the United States and its European allies.
"Iran has come to the UN this year with a real warning that what they can get from Europeans is only limited political coverage to support the nuclear deal," said Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy head of studies for the Middle East and the Middle East. North Africa of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Iranian officials, she said, arrived in New York finding that Europeans could offer no substantial economic relief and that even a French-led initiative to issue a $ 15 billion credit line, essentially an advance payment on Iranian oil shipments. , is likely to fail. Washington is unlikely to issue waivers, and European banks are unwilling to participate in the effort if they believe they will be prohibited from releasing US dollar transactions.
Brian Hook, the State Department's special representative for Iran, made clear on Monday that the United States would put pressure on the United Nations Security Council to penalize the Iranians. In an appearance at the Asia Society in New York, he called on the 15-member council to extend the arms embargo to Iran, which is due to expire in a year under the nuclear agreement. He also said Europe should sanction Iranian entities and individuals involved in the country's drone and missile programs.
Hook said he did not want to hurt the work of the missile attack investigators in Saudi Arabia, but said he expected action by the United Nations and the European Union after the investigations had been completed. "The international community needs to re-establish deterrence," he said. "We are a missile attack far from a regional war."
Two weeks ago, it looked as if Iran could find a way out by accepting Trump for his offer of negotiations. But the attacks on Saudi Arabia and US accusations of Iranian involvement virtually killed that possibility, US officials said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters on Sunday that President Emmanuel Macron's mediation looked promising until the attacks on the oil facility, which he called a "game changer".
France's priorities have shifted from brokering a meeting between Tehran and Washington with the aim of restarting a dialogue to merely try to prevent a military conflict.
"The meeting between Trump and Rouhani is not the main issue," said Le Drian. "The priority issue is whether we can restart an escalation path with the different actors."
Zarif said the Americans' decision to designate Iran's central bank as terrorist financier on Friday, making it virtually impossible for international institutions to negotiate with him, meant that Trump “consciously or unconsciously closed the door to negotiations. . "
This can all be a posture, of course, on both sides. For months, Iranian elites have been signaling that the country would have no choice but to deal with Trump – Zarif, who has spent much of his life in the United States, now predicts that the president is more likely than not to be reelected.
And Trump is about threatening military action and repeating his claim that the Iranians really want "a deal." His aides say Trump episodically visualizes the kind of leader-to-leader negotiations he conducted with Kim Jong-un. As one senior American diplomat recently noted, unlike Kim, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "does not embrace and write" complementary letters. (Trump's effort through Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky to invite Zarif to the Oval Office several months ago failed; Zarif said he would find American leaders only for a deeply substantive, "not a photo" conversation. Mr. Kim.)
But that moment may have passed.
Falcon Pompeo clearly realizes that the attacks on Saudi oil facilities, for which he blamed the Iranians before any forensic evidence was gathered, fundamentally changed the dynamics of the negotiations. He finally has the opportunity he's been looking for 18 months ago: a chance to kill Europe's effort to neutralize sanctions.
Pompeo rebutted his criticism on Sunday, saying the Iranians are "bloodthirsty and looking for war," and suggesting that as the sanctions go deeper, the Iranian people will demand changes in his government – although he has stopped require a change regime.
"They are operating in five countries today," Pompeo said of the Iranians on Sunday at CBS News's "Face the Nation." They have had to make tough decisions about whether to feed their people, provide medicine for their people or launch missiles into Saudi Arabia. "
In the coming days, both sides will have to show their hands. When Rouhani arrives to address the General Assembly on Wednesday, Zarif said, the Iranian president will announce a "Coalition for Hope" and will invite a wide variety of nations – including Sunni Arab countries that see Iran as deadly. enemy – joining forces in "freedom of navigation and energy security".
It seems highly unlikely that the proposal will gain momentum. But again, Pompeo also found few buyers of an international coalition to patrol the Persian Gulf and surrounding waters to protect oil shipments.
On Wednesday morning, Zarif will join the countries that agreed to the 2015 nuclear deal – with the obvious exception of the United States – at a meeting on the future of the deal. Pompeo, he said, "is welcome to participate," but to do so, he must first sign the terms of the old deal before negotiating a new deal.
“We can do J.C.P.O.A. even better, ”he said, using the formal abbreviation of the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan.
But Mr. Pompeo will not be there. Instead, he will address a group called United Against Nuclear Iran, a vociferous critic of the 2015 deal.
The reality is that the deal is now in life support. While European officials say in particular that they believe Iran is attacking Saudi ships and facilities solely because of US sanctions, they admit that the Saudi attacks have probably undermined their last hope for a deal that would restore Tehran's oil revenues.
"For the US to participate in any negotiations with Iran, we must show that it is a reliable partner," said Zarif. Adopting an American art term, he said he would not "buy the same horse twice".
"I already bought the horse," he said of his efforts in 2015 to convince skeptical leaders in Iran, especially in the military, that the country would be better off signing the deal and ending much of its nuclear activity than continuing a close relationship. hostility.
The impasse contrasts dramatically with last year's events. At that time, Zarif and the European Union's head of foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, announced a complex European plan to neutralize US sanctions with an exchange system. Iran still seemed to be in full compliance with its commitments under the agreement, reinforcing its effort to appear more invested in the international system than in the United States.
Trump even abandoned the idea of focusing explicitly on Iran last year for fear that other members of the Security Council would say that Trump, for ego reasons, dismantled an international agreement largely because his predecessor had negotiated it.
This year could not look any different. Iran began this spring to avoid its commitments under the agreement, exceeding the limits on the amount of nuclear material it can produce and increasing the level of enrichment beyond allowance. Rouhani promised a carefully calibrated and easily reversible program of other violations until Europeans pay. But the more he goes, the more the deal goes hollow.
Zarif, in turn, says that Europeans have a stark choice …