NEW YORK – President Donald Trump wants to leave the U.N. General Assembly meetings this week with global support for his effort to isolate Iran.
But experts warn the U.S. might end up isolated instead.
France, England and other key U.S. allies have shown no interest in abandoning the 2015 multilateral nuclear accord negotiated with Iran – a move Trump has pressed them to take.
Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe both plan to meet with Iran’s leader, Hassan Rouhani, on the sidelines of the U.N.’s formal sessions – a sign they are looking for ways to continue working with Tehran despite the U.S. pressure.
Furthermore, the red-hot rhetoric used by Trump and his advisers at this week’s U.N. meetings may widen the rift over Iran, rather than rallying allies to America’s side. Take, for example, the threats leveled by Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton.
“The days of impunity for Tehran and its enablers are over,” Bolton said in a speech Tuesday to United Against Nuclear Iran, a group that supports a more hard-line approach. “The murderous regime and its supporters will face significant consequences if they do not change their behavior. … We are watching, and we will come after you.”
Iran’s Rouhani, speaking Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly, said in translated remarks: “It’s ironic that the U.S. doesn’t even conceal its plan for overthrowing the same government it invites to talks. On what basis and criteria can we enter into a negotiation with such a government?”
William Drozdiak, a foreign policy expert with the Brookings Institution and a consultant on European issues, said France, Germany and Britain “will strongly resist any threatening calls by the United States to use armed military action against Iran, and they’ve already condemned the idea of forcing regime change.”
Trump’s position will take center stage Wednesday when he chairs a Security Council meeting on the nuclear threat posed by Iran and other countries. Trump has criticized the Iran deal as weakand counterproductive to U.S. interests.
He and his advisers have argued that world leaders need to force Iran back to the table and press the country’s leadership to end their ballistic missile program and their support for terrorism around the globe.
But some say the Trump administration’s hard line – and its unwillingness to compromise on the nuclear deal – has alienated allies who otherwise agree that those Iranian activities pose a threat.
“I think the world is really concerned about the Iran issue and is trying to find ways to maybe shape U.S. behavior,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank.
But the U.S. seems to be “just telling the world, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’” Alterman said, “and that is not the way the world wants to handle Iran.”
Brian Hook, the administration’s special representative on Iran, rejected the idea that the U.S. had isolated itself from Europe and other allies by pursuing tough economic pressure on Iran. Hook said the U.S. and the European Union agree on the threat posed by Iran, if not the approach on how to address it.
“We all understand that Iran’s missile proliferation is a problem that’s getting worse and not better,” Hook said. “No one thinks the status quo is something favorable.” Hook described the relationship with Europe as “very strong.”
Hook noted that the sanctions pressure the U.S. has applied so far has been targeted at the private sector, and he said that most companies have made a business decision that they’d rather stop doing business with Iran than risk losing access to the U.S. market.
But after two days of meetings here, it was unclear whether the U.S. had made any progress in convincing the other five countries that negotiated the agreement with Iran, despite the aggressive rhetoric and several one-on-one meetings between the president and the leaders of Europe.
White House aides said the Iran nuclear agreement had come up in most of those private meetings, but neither senior officials in the administration nor Trump pointed to specific progress. Trump was set to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose country was one of the deal’s signatories.
On Monday, May told “CBS This Morning” co-host John Dickerson that Iran has honored the multilateral agreement to limit its nuclear weapons program and that the deal should remain in place.
Trump re-imposed some sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the nuclear deal, and he plans to ratchet up the pressure in November with sanctions on Tehran’s oil sector.
On Tuesday, Trump vowed to push countries that import Iranian crude oil to cut their purchases, a tactic that has already borne some fruit. India, South Korea, and other countries – as well as some European oil companies – have signaled they will stop doing business with Iran, so they can keep doing business with the U.S.
“The truth of the matter is that the private sector around the world has understood our sanctions message very clearly,” Hook said.
Some countries, including Japan, are reportedly seeking waivers from the looming oil sanctions, though it’s unclear if the U.S. will grant such requests. Abe plans to discuss the oil sanctions in his meeting with Rouhani this week, according to a report in the Japan Times.
Abe is also meeting with Trump on Wednesday.
The other signatories of the Iran deal struck a defiant tone early in the week, announcing an effort to counteract U.S. sanctions and allow some business with Tehran to continue. Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said details of the sanctions-skirting effort had not yet been worked out but the idea was also embraced by Russia and China.
Hook dismissed the effort when asked if it would have an effect on negotiations.
“It can’t,” Hook said, citing the risk companies face from the U.S. if they operate in Iran. “We just don’t see it as a big factor.”
Drozdiak said that America’s allies are struggling to find ways to keep the nuclear deal alive by “searching for alternative commercial and financial arrangements that will enable Iran to trade with the west in spite of sanctions.”
But he and others said Trump would have little, if anything, to show for the Iran pressure campaign during the U.N. meetings later this week.
Daniel Fried, a former ambassador to Poland and an assistant secretary of state, said Trump’s address to the General Assembly on Tuesday simply reinforced the idea that the U.S. will go its own way on the global stage, even if that means breaking with allies.
“The president’s speech did nothing to advance those objectives,” said Fried, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. “I’m not fan of the Iranian regime, but if you want to put pressure on them, don’t isolate yourself.”
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