US trying to move forward after quitting Iran nuclear deal

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will unveil a new "diplomatic roadmap" for Iran - how America plans to "address the totality of Iran's threats". PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - After leaving the Iran nuclear deal, Washington wants to move forward by offering to build a "coalition" to counter the multiple "threats" posed by the Teheran regime, but Europeans intent on saving the 2015 accord may thwart that effort.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday (May 21) will unveil a new "diplomatic roadmap" for Iran - how America plans to "address the totality of Iran's threats", according to the State Department's director of policy planning, Mr Brian Hook.

Washington is looking to draft a "new security architecture and a better security framework, a better deal", Mr Hook told reporters ahead of the speech, the first major policy address by Mr Pompeo since he became America's top diplomat.

"The US will be working hard to put together a coalition," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, flagging Washington's bid for a multilateral approach after its unilateral withdrawal from the accord.

President Donald Trump has long trashed the deal with Iran - concluded under his predecessor Barack Obama, together with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia - saying it did not do enough to curtail Teheran's nuclear ambitions.

The Republican leader also said it did not go far enough in restricting Iran's ballistic missile programme, or its intervention in regional conflicts from Yemen to Iraq and Syria.

"We need a new, a framework that's going to address the totality of Iran's threats," Mr Hook said.

So far, the guidelines of this new strategy are unclear.

The big unknown is whether European leaders, who were bitterly disappointed by Mr Trump's decision to ditch the deal, would be willing to return to talks with his administration any time soon.

For now, the European Union is trying to persuade Iran to stay in the 2015 agreement, even without Washington's participation.

The re-establishment of the US sanctions that were lifted after the Iran nuclear deal was signed will force European companies to choose between investing in Iran or trading with the United States.

In reality, there is no choice: European companies cannot afford to forsake the US market.

And with investment from Europe - which had been the main carrot dangled before the Iranians to right their struggling economy - now stymied, Teheran may have little incentive to hold up its end of the bargain.

The Europeans have tried to squeeze a little flexibility out of Washington to help out their firms, but to no avail.

"They tell us, 'We want the sanctions to hurt, there won't be any exemptions,'" said one European official.

Some in the US administration are calling for a "North Korea scenario", meaning the imposition of sanctions so severe that they force Iran back to the negotiating table.

By reimposing the sanctions, Washington aims to "bring economic pressure to bear on Iran", Mr Hook said.

"It was economic pressure that brought the Iranians to the table a few years ago."

But Mr Jake Sullivan, a former Obama administration official who is now a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said "the idea that we are going to be able to reconstruct sanctions at the same level (as 2015) is a flawed concept".

"The more aggressive the US is in telling the Europeans basically, 'We have you under our thumbs,' the more the Europeans are going to say: 'We will find any means we possibly can to not let you do that to us,'" he said on Friday.

Washington has meanwhile sought to downplay the differences with its allies.

"We agree with the Europeans on much, much more than we disagree on," said Mr Hook, citing "a lot of progress" during talks with Paris, London and Berlin that aimed to find solutions to Mr Trump's concerns.

The US official also mentioned French President Emmanuel Macron's proposal of a "new deal", based on the 2015 accord, but offering a broader strategy on Iran.

But those negotiations, and Mr Macron's proposal, pre-dated the abrupt US withdrawal from the accord.

Are they still on the table? And how could an accord be reached now if it was impossible 10 days ago?

"We are waiting to see more details," said a European official.

Another European official warned: "But if it is a question of building a coalition to push for regime change in Iran, the Europeans won't be on board."

For Mr Sullivan, the next phase is one in which "the punishment is the strategy - squeezing Iran and keeping them in the penalty box for as long as possible, and as much as possible, with the hope of regime change, but if it's not regime change, (then) a weaker regime."

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