World powers agreed to keep looking for ways to ensure Iran gets the financial and energy benefits it signed up for under a landmark nuclear deal after they fell short of providing tangible guarantees sought by the Islamic Republic.
“The participants stressed their determination to effectively develop and implement practical solutions,” said European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who convened the meeting on Friday in Vienna. Foreign ministers from China, France, Germany and Russia reiterated that Iran should be able to sell its oil and gain international banking access in return for sticking to nuclear limits imposed by the July 2015 accord.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned via Twitter before the meeting that countries needed to “forge practical solutions” rather than make “lofty and obscure promises.” Zarif said he’d transmit the commitments made in Vienna to senior Iranian leaders, according to remarks translated by the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies.
At stake is the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that lifted most sanctions on Iran in exchange for strict limits imposed on its nuclear work. After President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal on May 8, Iran gave the remaining five powers time to come up with guaranteed access to global energy and financial markets. In the interim, international atomic inspectors have verified that Iran is living up to its part of the bargain.
While the 11-point list of commitments released after the roughly two-hour meeting included Iranian access to energy markets, shipping insurance and foreign investment, it didn’t give specific measures on how to get there. The EU said only that it continues to update legislation intended to blunt the impact of U.S. sanctions and is changing the European Investment Bank’s lending mandates to include Iran.
“Inaction is a strategy as well,” said Laura von Daniels, who tracks trans-Atlantic finance for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. By not offering any concrete measures, Europe could be forcing Iran into violating the deal, she said before the talks.
Iran, which sits atop the world’s second-biggest natural gas reserves, expects oil exports to remain at current levels, continued access to international finance and the completion of contracts signed with European companies, a senior Iranian official said last month. Failure to provide relief from U.S. sanctions would result in the resumption of uranium enrichment and could result in the country leaving the Non-Proliferation Treaty against nuclear weapons, the person said.
“We want to make it clear to Iran today that it will continue to benefit economically from this agreement,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Vienna. “We are currently looking for possibilities to keep the financial transaction channel with Iran open.” Maas said further discussions would be necessary.
A top U.S. State Department official warned Tuesday in Washington that any plans to continue doing business with Iran will run afoul of U.S. sanctions. “Our goal is to increase pressure on the Iranian regime by reducing to zero its revenue from crude oil sales,” said Brian Hook, who has led Trump administration discussions with European allies on the sanctions.
The bulk of Iran’s oil revenues and banking ties will be at stake if neither can be protected by the EU. Rouhani, who’s facing intense pressure from hardline conservatives at home who accuse him of being naïve for ever trusting the U.S., would be left with little incentive to remain in the deal and in compliance with its terms and conditions.
Proposals to allow European finance to bypass American sanctions have been met with skepticism by EU states, which are also trying to negotiate trade disputes with the Trump administration that could threaten U.S. exports worth more than $435 billion. By comparison, Iran is the bloc’s 66th biggest trading partner with less than $24 billion of goods exchanging hands, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.