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Leaked cables reveal US plan to improve Iran deal alongside European allies

US wants Europeans to commit to improve the deal over time in return for Trump keeping it alive by renewing sanctions relief
US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a panel discussion at G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, in July 2017 (AFP)

The United States has sketched out a path under which three key European allies would simply commit to try to improve the Iran nuclear deal over time in return for US President Donald Trump keeping the pact alive by renewing US sanctions relief in May.

The approach, outlined in a State Department cable obtained by Reuters and an interview with a senior department official this week, still faces obstacles. The European allies are uncertain what will satisfy Trump and are reluctant to make such a commitment only to find that he asks them for more, two European officials and two former US officials said.

The cable's characterisation of what the United States wants from the Europeans, which has not been previously reported, sets a lower standard than laid out by Trump in January and so might facilitate a meeting of the minds, five current European and four former US officials said.

"We are asking for your commitment that we should work together to seek a supplemental or follow-on agreement that addresses Iran’s development or testing long-range missiles, ensures strong IAEA inspections, and fixes the flaws of the 'sunset clause,'" said the cable.

The crux of the July 2015 agreement between Iran and six major powers - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - was that Iran would restrict its nuclear programme in return for relief from sanctions that have crippled its economy.

Trump sees three defects in the deal: its failure to address Iran's ballistic missile programme; the terms under which international inspectors can visit suspect Iranian nuclear sites; and "sunset" clauses which limit the Iranian nuclear programme start to expire after 10 years. He wants all three strengthened if the United States is to stay in the deal.

Trump delivered an ultimatum to the European powers on 12 January, saying they must agree to "fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal" or he would refuse to extend the US sanctions relief on Iran that it calls for. US sanctions will resume unless Trump issues fresh "waivers" to suspend them on 12 May.

"This is a last chance," he said.

The State Department declined to comment on the cable, saying it would not discuss internal communications. The White House did not respond to requests for comment on what Trump sought in his 12 January statement or how it viewed the approach outlined in the cable.

An agreement to get an agreement

Reaching a full-blown international accord by the 12 May deadline is seen as an impossibility by some US and European officials even if there was agreement on the underlying issues, which there is not.

In an interview last week, a senior US State Department official described the effort with the Europeans as a two-phase process.

During the first, from 12 January to 12 May, the United States will seek to get the Europeans to agree on the weaknesses that need to be fixed, he said.

"We want a commitment from them that these are the deficiencies that need to be addressed ... and an agreement that we will seek an agreement. That's it," he said.

The second phase, to begin immediately after 12 May, would take that understanding to the other parties to the deal - Iran, Russia and China - to see if there was some way to address these issues.

The official said there were three possible avenues to do this: amend the existing pact, negotiate a supplemental agreement, or seek a new UN Security Council resolution to make the changes.

If the United States were to pursue a supplemental accord, which is common in arms control, it would want the support of Iran, Russia and China but could live with just the agreement of Germany, France and Britain, the senior US official said.

In such a scenario, the four Western nations could create their own supplemental agreement to reimpose sanctions if the Iranians violated any of the new conditions that they would set.

In a meeting that has not been previously reported, US negotiators will next see officials from Britain, France and Germany, known as the "E3," in Paris on Tuesday, US and European officials said, to discuss how to meet Trump's demands.

'A little softer'

European officials said in interviews they did not know if the view laid out in the State Department diplomatic cable - sent to US diplomats in London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels to deliver to their counterparts - will prevail in Washington.

Ultimately, they said, all that counts is Trump's judgment on whether to renew US sanctions waivers that expire on May 12.

"Has the Trump administration shifted its stance? We don't know," said a senior European diplomat on Friday.

"The reality is that what we are doing now is to try to get the best package possible to convince Trump," said a second European diplomat on Friday, referring to Trump's concerns on missiles, inspections and the sunset clauses.

"Nobody knows what Trump will do or wants," he added.

That confusion is caused, in part, by disagreements among different parts of the US administration and the fundamental unpredictability of what Trump - who has at times rejected the advice of his senior national security officials - may ultimately decide.

The State Department cable was "a little softer" than Trump's statement, said Richard Boucher, a former State Department spokesman for five US secretaries of state.

Boucher and three other former US officials flagged the difference between Trump’s demand the E3 reach an "agreement to fix the terrible flaws" of the deal and the cable's less demanding language seeking a "commitment" to "work together" to "seek" a supplemental accord that "addresses" its deficiencies.

"The president, to me, was holding out a higher standard. They have to agree and negotiate and we have to get an agreement. Whereas the other one was [saying] we have to get their commitment to go down this road," Boucher said.