One year after threatening to destroy North Korea and mocking Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man,” President Donald Trump and his top officials have turned their ire on a new target at this year’s United Nations General Assembly: Iran.
But between threats to “come after you” and invitations to sit down with no preconditions, the administration’s Iran policy has been driving divisions with and confusion among European allies still rankled by Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Those divisions could be on open display Wednesday as Trump chairs a special U.N. Security Council meeting focused broadly on nonproliferation, but where he is expected to blast Iran once again.
During his address at the U.N. Tuesday, Trump called on “all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues” as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign meant to ultimately drive Iran back to the negotiating table to get a new, more comprehensive deal.
Instead, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has had a full week of meetings on the sidelines of the General Assembly, including with U.S. allies French President Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Less than 24 hours before Trump’s speech, the European Union announced that along with Russia, China and Iran, it would create a special payment system to protect financial transactions with Iran from U.S. sanctions.
Threats and accusations against allies
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton served as the administration’s attack dogs on that issue. While Iran met with the remaining parties of the JCPOA at U.N. headquarters Monday, both men spoke Tuesday off-campus at not a U.N.-sponsored event, but a summit organized by the political group United Against a Nuclear Iran.
Pompeo said he was “disturbed and indeed deeply disappointed” by the announcement, calling it “one of the most counterproductive measures imaginable” and accusing Europe of “enabling Iran’s violent export of revolution” — a strong accusation against allies.
Bolton seemed less concerned by it, saying the European Union was “strong on rhetoric and weak on follow-through. … We will be watching the development of this structure that doesn’t exist yet and has no target date to be created,” he added dryly, before asserting to cheers: “We do not intend to allow our sanctions to be evaded by Europe or anybody else.”
In fact, enforcement of all U.S. sanctions will be “aggressive and unwavering,” he said, and he announced the administration would pursue more sanctions on Iran after the second round of nuclear sanctions that were suspended under the nuclear deal are implemented in early November.
Those November sanctions, hitting Iran’s key oil exports and the Central Bank of Iran and financial transactions, will be particularly biting for the country and anyone pursuing business with it. The Trump administration has welcomed the dozens of European companies pulling projects and money from Iran in anticipation, but European governments are still trying to protect transactions to keep the nuclear deal alive.
“[Trump’s Iran] policy continues to frustrate Europe because Europe is interested in the deal for economic reasons, but also ideological and political reasons. Europe genuinely believed the JCPOA was a good deal,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow who studies Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The resurrection of sanctions still irks the E.U.”
Saying we’re working together
Still, the administration has consistently downplayed those divisions, with Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook saying Tuesday, “We are still working very closely with the Europeans. … We have a very similar threat assessment [of Iran].”
Hook, who led talks with Europe to try to keep the U.S. in the deal by negotiating a side agreement, declined to say what, if anything, the trans-Atlantic partners were working on together. Before Trump withdrew from the nuclear accord in May, Hook and his team were close to reaching agreements on sanctioning Iran’s ballistic missile program and addressing Iran’s behavior in the region, officials said.
But withdrawing from the deal has deepened the divide and spoiled those negotiations, according to critics. Instead of working together on addressing those threats, the Europeans have spent months now trying to figure out how to keep Iran in the deal and keep the deal itself alive.
“I can’t imagine the Trump administration was hoping that Europe would spend weeks trying to find ways to continue financial dealings with Iran rather than doing the other things that the U.S. was hoping to do. … There’s greater disunity with allies,” said Rob Malley, the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, who served as the Obama White House’s lead negotiator for the Iran deal.
Even at a dinner with E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and 40 foreign ministers and senior officials from the Europe and Canada on Tuesday night, Pompeo pressed his case, urging “all nations to join our efforts to stop the Iranian regime’s torrent of destructive activity around the world,” according to spokesperson Heather Nauert.
Talks with a ‘lovely man’?
Despite the divisions, the Trump administration is trying to find common ground with individual European partners. For example, with Iran’s ballistic missile program “ongoing and advancing,” according to Bolton, the U.S. may hope to work with the French, whose president has expressed concern about Iranian missiles.
Individual negotiations like that could be confidence-building measures to restore a working relationship across the Atlantic, according to Taleblu, in the hopes that the administration could work its way toward eventually addressing the various challenges together.
Ultimately, according to several administration officials, the goal is to build enough support for the pressure campaign that Iran is forced to negotiate again: “Historically it’s been the case that they respond to pressure,” Hook said.
But so far, there’s been no response. While Trump tweeted Tuesday morning that he’d like to “maybe someday in the future” meet with Rouhani, who he is “sure … is an absolutely lovely man,” Hook said there have been no diplomatic channels opened so far.
According to critics, that’s because the administration has backed Iran into a corner. Meeting with Trump as sanctions are reimposed “would be viewed as validating President Trump’s strategy, which is something they don’t want to do,” according to Malley.
Rouhani made that clear in his own address to the U.N., saying “Under what basis and criteria can we enter into an agreement with an administration misbehaving such as this?”
“We concur that at the end of the day there is no better way but dialogue. However, dialogue is two ways. It should be based on equality, justice and human integrity, and honor,” he added.