World News

Iran Says Oil Deal With Europe Is Close

Posted September 29, 2018 11:12 p.m. EDT

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Saturday that Tehran was closing in on an agreement to sell oil to European nations despite U.S. threats of sanctions against any countries that do business with Iran.

If the arrangement comes to fruition — some British and French officials say they have their doubts — it would constitute the most open break between President Donald Trump and European allies that objected vociferously to his decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Several of those nations openly confronted Trump on Wednesday, when he led a U.N. Security Council meeting about weapons of mass destruction. They argued that he was throwing away the best chance the world has to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons in coming years.

In an hourlong conversation with reporters, Zarif, who negotiated the nuclear accord with John Kerry, who was then the secretary of state, sounded far more optimistic than he had in recent months that he could peel away America’s traditional allies to break Trump’s effort to cut off Iran’s revenues.

Zarif is capitalizing on a renewed enthusiasm among some of the allies to push back at what they term bullying by Washington to sever ties with Iran simply because Trump decided to forsake the nuclear pact. All the other signatories to the agreement — Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran and Russia — have vowed to stand by it.

“No sovereign country or organization can accept that somebody else decides with whom you are allowed to do trade with,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief, said this past week. She predicted that the financial arrangements could be in place before Trump issues the next set of sanctions in November, aimed at banks, businesses and countries that conduct business with Tehran.

At the core of the agreement that Iran and Europe are trying to forge is a mechanism for paying for Iran’s oil in barter and local currencies, rather than in U.S. dollars. The idea is to route transactions around the United States and prevent it from blocking financial transfers — and perhaps from identifying those involved in the transactions.

“This is for us to sell our oil and get the proceeds,” Zarif said, noting that under the U.N. resolutions passed once the 2015 agreement was reached, countries have the legal right to trade with Iran.

Trump administration officials argue that the agreement is deeply flawed because it does not permanently ban Iran from producing nuclear fuel — it is free to do so after 2030 — and does nothing to stop Iran’s missile exports, its activity in Syria and its support of terrorist groups.

Trump’s aides, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, argue that the effort to route around U.S. sanctions will not work. Trump has threatened to bar companies engaged in buying Iranian oil, or other goods, from doing business in the United States. The threat has led companies to flee Tehran, sending Iran’s currency plummeting.

British and French officials say it is possible Trump will prevail, with European firms from Airbus to Total, the French oil giant, already canceling billions of dollars of investment in Iran in anticipation of the additional U.S. sanctions.

Two weeks ago, Brian Hook, the State Department envoy for Iran, said the United States was seeking “the new deal that we hope to be able to sign with Iran, and it will not be a personal agreement between two governments like the last one; we seek a treaty.”

Zarif, who is U.S.-educated and has a deep interest in the workings of U.S. politics, seemed on Saturday to have no interest in such a deal. He conceded that Trump may win the opening rounds of what has essentially become a litmus test of whether countries will follow the president’s confrontational approach.

He and the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, have said that Trump is trying to bait them into violating the accord, setting the stage for a resumption of the long-running crisis that the 2015 deal was supposed to de-escalate.

“You are just another country,” he said at one point. “Just act as a normal country.” Pompeo has said essentially the same about Iran.

Zarif was dismissive of Trump’s escalating verbal attacks on Iran’s missile sales and its support of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Syrian government of Bashar Assad. He laughed when asked whether the United States could bring down the current Iranian government with mounting financial pressure — a regime-change strategy that Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for Trump, recently said was the real goal. (The State Department denied Giuliani’s characterization.)

Nor did Zarif expect the United States to attack key Iranian facilities, he said.

“If the U.S. believed it would have succeeded in such an attack, it would have done so already,” he said. (In fact, the United States has mounted an attack, using computer code to destroy Iranian centrifuges at the end of the Bush administration and in the first years of the Obama administration.) Asked about his recent conversations with Kerry, whom Trump and Pompeo have accused of undermining U.S. foreign policy, Zarif said the messages were simple.

“What he has done is encourage us to stay in the deal,” he said. As for the threats by Trump to investigate Kerry, he said: “I didn’t realize you still had witch hunts going on in the United States” — a nod to one of Trump’s favorite phrases about the Russia investigation.

On the subject of claims by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Thursday that Iran had hidden nuclear-related components in a warehouse in Tehran, Zarif said he believed that it was a cleaning facility for Persian rugs. But he would not commit to letting inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visit.