Rouhani slams ‘psychological warfare’ – Pompeo in N Korea, date set for summit

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump signs a document reinstating sanctions against Iran after announcing the US’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House yesterday. – AFP

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump defied the pleas of his European allies and pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal yesterday, vowing to re-impose crippling sanctions on Tehran and warning that Iranians deserve a better government. His decision itself came as little surprise – the US leader has long scorned what he called the “disastrous” 2015 accord – but his suggestion that the regime must change underlined the risks of a dangerous new escalation in the Middle East.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised that Washington will work with its friends to build a new agreement to curtail Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons – but there was no disguising that Trump’s decision marked a stark diplomatic defeat for Europe, whose leaders had begged him to think again. “I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal,” Trump declared in a White House address, branding the landmark 2015 accord that was endorsed by Britain, China, Germany, Russia and Barack Obama’s previous US administration “defective at its core”.

Trump – who enjoys close ties with Iran’s foes Saudi Arabia and Israel – said he had consulted America’s friends in the Middle East and concluded “that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement”. “America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail,” Trump vowed. “We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction and we will not allow a regime that chants ‘Death to America’ to gain access to the most deadly weapons on Earth.”

Trump’s hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton said that European firms would have a “wind down” period to cancel any investments made in Iran under the terms of the accord, after the world agreed to give Tehran sanctions relief in return for it scaling back its enrichment program and placing its nuclear industry under international inspection.

But there was no disguising the dismay in European capitals, whose diplomats see the deal as the best way of keeping tabs on Iran’s ambitions while heading off the risk of a destabilizing new arms race in the Middle East, where tensions are already soaring between Tehran and both Israel and the Gulf monarchies. “France, Germany, and the UK regret the US decision to leave the JCPOA (Iran deal). The nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake,” France’s President Emmanuel Macron wrote. “We will work collectively on a broader framework, covering nuclear activity, the post-2025 period, ballistic activity, and stability in the Middle-East, notably Syria, Yemen, and Iraq,” he added.

The European Union’s chief diplomat Federica Mogherini, who helped oversee the talks with Iran that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, insisted the accord “is delivering on its goal which is guaranteeing that Iran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons”. And she added: “the European Union is determined to preserve it.”

In contrast, Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who last week released a trove of intelligence on a pre-2003 Iranian plan to develop a nuclear weapon which Trump cited approvingly in his speech, was overjoyed. “Israel fully supports President Trump’s bold decision today to reject the disastrous nuclear deal,” Netanyahu said, in a televised address, even as his country opened bomb shelters and put the military on high alert in case of attack from the Iranian forces deployed in Syria in defense of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.

Saudi Arabia said it “supports and welcomes” Trump’s decision. The kingdom, a key US ally, said it would work with the US and the international community to address Iran’s nuclear program as well as its ballistic missile program and support of militant groups in the region. “Iran used economic gains from the lifting of sanctions to continue its activities to destabilize the region, particularly by developing ballistic missiles and supporting terrorist groups in the region,” according to a Saudi foreign ministry statement. It confirmed “the need to deal with the danger that Iran’s policies pose to international peace and security through a comprehensive view that is not limited to its nuclear program but also includes all hostile activities” in the region.

The United Arab Emirates also said it backed the US’ decision and voiced support for Trump’s strategy in dealing with Tehran. The UAE foreign ministry urged the international community “to respond positively to President Trump’s position to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction”, the state news agency WAM reported.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani – who some deal supporters see as a reforming moderate who will be undermined by any collapse in the deal – was furious, accusing Trump of “psychological warfare” and vowing to take the matter up with the agreement’s other signatories, including Washington’s rivals Moscow and Beijing.

Meanwhile, former Obama administration officials warned that the decision puts the US on a collision course with Iran, distances the White House from its key allies and put US citizens held in Iran at risk. Former deputy secretary of state Tony Blinken, who helped negotiate the accord, called it a “monumental mistake” and former senior diplomat Wendy Sherman told reporters Trump was putting international stability at risk for purely domestic political purposes.

“This has been a crisis that Trump has been precipitating himself to answer his base, to fulfill a campaign pledge that he made, without any sense whatsoever of what Plan B is,” she told reporters. “It says that the United States is not a reliable partner,” she added, insisting that the existing deal permanently prevents Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. Blinken said ending the deal gives “hardliners in Iran an excuse to restart their pursuit of nuclear weapons, but without the united international coalition to oppose them or inspectors on the ground to expose them.”

Trump had had until May 12 to decide whether to continue to waive sanctions on Iran’s central bank and its oil sector dealings, a key pillar of the 2015 agreement, but moved more quickly than expected and cancelled sanctions that were not yet up for review. For months, critics have been warning ending the waivers would unravel the carefully constructed deal, plunge Iran’s already struggling economy into crisis and expose the biggest transatlantic rift since the Iraq War.

But some US officials close to Trump, as well as hawkish Washington lobbyists, argue that an Iranian economic collapse could lead to Tehran’s Islamist regime falling – and that this would be a good thing. Ahead of Trump’s verdict, diplomats shifted into damage limitation mode, hoping that beyond his inevitably harsh rhetoric, he stops short of immediately re-imposing sanctions.

In Brussels, officials are already working on “blocking” measures that would protect EU citizens and companies from US prosecution. “We are having conversations obviously and we are working on a number of proposals that could protect European companies and operators,” a senior EU official told reporters.

Trump also announced yesterday that Pompeo is on his way to North Korea to prepare for a landmark nuclear summit, as a flurry of diplomacy with Pyongyang at the center gathered pace. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are expected to meet later this month or early in June for talks that would have been nearly unthinkable a year ago, when the two mercurial leaders were trading barbs and Pyongyang tested a barrage of missiles.

But after months of saber-rattling, and a historic summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the mood is decidedly more upbeat, and Trump has said a date and location are already set – though he did not divulge any specifics. “At this very moment, Secretary Pompeo is on his way to North Korea in preparation for my upcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un,” Trump said in the televised address from the White House.

Pompeo, who met Kim in Pyongyang about a month ago while he was still director of the CIA, will arrive in the North in “virtually an hour”, Trump said. “We have our meeting schedule. We have our meeting set. The location is picked. The time and date. Everything is picked. And we look forward to having a very great success,” he said. “We think relationships are building with North Korea. We will see how it all works out. Maybe it won’t. But it can be a great thing for North Korea, South Korea and the entire world.”

In addition to planning the summit, Pompeo has been pressing the regime to release three detained US citizens. Trump has said to “stay tuned” on the issue. “We will be listening for signs from North Korea that things have substantially changed since Kim declared on New Year’s Eve that he would mass produce nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them,” a senior State Department official traveling with Pompeo said. – Agencies