Washington (AFP) – The United States’ top diplomat said Sunday Washington still wants to work with its European partners on an agreement to counter Iran’s “malign behavior” as President Donald Trump justified his decision to withdraw from the landmark nuclear deal.
The development came as Iran’s foreign minister said he was hopeful of forging a “clear future design” for the pact, while speaking in Beijing at the start of a diplomatic tour aimed at rescuing it.
Trump’s announcement last Tuesday that the US was exiting the 2015 nuclear accord was met with widespread dismay in Europe where companies now face the threat of sanctions if they do business with Iran.
But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was keen to thrash out a more wide-ranging deal with its allies as Trump said Iran had been “trying to take over” the Middle East since the nuclear agreement was signed.
Pompeo, who is barely a fortnight into his new job, told Fox News Sunday that he had been tasked by the president “to work to strike a deal that achieves the outcomes that protect America.”
“That’s what we are going to do and I will be hard at it with the Europeans in the next several days,” said the top US diplomat.
“I’m hopeful in the days and weeks ahead we can come up with a deal that really works, that really protects the world from Iranian bad behavior, not just their nuclear program, but their missiles and their malign behavior as well.
The administration says the lifting of sanctions as part of the nuclear pact had allowed Iran to build up its military.
Trump weighed in later Sunday, saying his decision would limit Iran’s regional ambitions.
“Remember how badly Iran was behaving with the Iran Deal in place,” he said. “They were trying to take over the Middle East by whatever means necessary. Now, that will not happen!”
– Zarif embarks on tour –
While he has committed to remaining in the nuclear agreement, French President Emmanuel Macron floated the idea of a supplemental deal on Iran during a recent visit to Washington.
German leader Angela Merkel also told Trump on a visit to Washington late last month that the nuclear deal was insufficient in itself to curb Iran’s ambitions in the region.
Germany, France and Britain were three of the six signatories to the 2015 pact which saw sanctions lifted in return for the commitment by Tehran not to acquire nuclear weapons.
Although most analysts believe the US withdrawal has effectively scuppered the agreement, Iran’s foreign minister talked up the prospects of its survival on Sunday while visiting China, another of the signatories.
“We hope that with this visit to China and other countries we will be able to construct a clear future design for the comprehensive agreement,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters after talks in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
After their meeting, Zarif and Wang hailed the “comprehensive strategic partnership” between their countries, with the Chinese minister saying: “I hope and believe that these visits to multiple countries will… help protect Iran’s legitimate national interests and peace and stability in the region.”
Zarif will later fly to Moscow and Brussels to consult the remaining signatories to the 2015 agreement denounced by US President Donald Trump.
Zarif also published a government statement on his Twitter page, slamming Trump’s “extremist administration” for abandoning “an accord recognized as a victory of diplomacy by the international community”.
Tehran’s chief diplomat embarked on the tour as regional tensions spiked just days after unprecedented Israeli strikes in Syria which a monitor said killed at least 11 Iranian pro-regime fighters, triggering fears of a broader conflict between the two arch-enemies.
– Iran hardliners fight back –
Iranian hardliners — who have long opposed President Hassan Rouhani’s moves to improve ties with the West — are already mobilizing against the efforts to save the nuclear deal.
Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the Revolutionary Guards, said the country could not rely on the West.
“We hope recent events will lead us not to trust in the West and even Europeans,” he said Sunday, according to the conservative-linked Fars news agency.
“The Europeans have repeated on several occasions that they will not be able to resist US sanctions.”
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last week he was highly doubtful that Europe would provide the “real guarantees” needed for Iran to stay in the nuclear deal.
But analysts said Iran was determined to maintain the moral high ground in the coming weeks.
“For the first time, Iran has the chance to show the world they are not the rogue nation they are always presented as, that they negotiated in good faith and keep to their commitments,” said Karim Emile Bitar of the Institute for International and Strategic Studies in Paris.