Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is preparing to take part in nuclear talks next week with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and representatives of other key powers, according to several diplomatic sources, marking the first time the Trump administration’s top diplomat will meet with his Iranian counterpart.
The move comes about a month before President Donald Trump is scheduled to decide whether to certify to Congress that Iran is meeting its obligations under the 2015 nuclear pact, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
For months, the Trump administration has been sharply divided over whether to continue to certify that Iran is in compliance with the accord, or to break free of the Obama-era agreement, a move that would result in Tehran ramping up its nuclear program.
In July, Tillerson and other key national security advisors prevailed on the president to recertify the pact, which by law he has to do every three months. But Trump was reportedly unhappy with the decision and was hoping to scupper the accord in October.
“The truth is, the Iran deal has so many flaws that it’s tempting to leave it,” Nikki Haley told a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this month. “But the deal was constructed in a way that makes leaving it less attractive. It gave Iran what it wanted up front, in exchange for temporary promise to deliver what we want.”
But the pact has received overwhelming support from key allies, including Britain, Germany and France, while the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday pleaded with Washington to preserve it. The accord, he told reporters, “has contributed to an important de-escalation at the moment, and it is a factor of stability. And it’s my opinion that all parties should do everything possible for this agreement to be preserved.”
The ministerial meeting — which is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly debate — will be hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and will include senior diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia. Diplomats said that while the meeting was formally scheduled there remained a residual of anxiety over the possibility that the key players might get cold feet.
The State Department declined to confirm whether the meeting would take place.
Though there are no apparent plans for Tillerson and Zarif to meet privately, the ministerial meeting sends an unexpected signal that Washington is willing to engage with Iran, at least as part of a broader diplomatic grouping, regarding the fate of the deal. But few diplomats familiar with the discussion were prepared to bet that the White House is ready to fully embrace the deal.
Still, the decision to discuss the nuclear accord comes amid reports that Trump’s national security advisors persuaded the president this week to pass up on an opportunity to reimpose tough Congressionally mandated sanctions on Iran on the grounds that it would scuttle the accord and alienate key American allies.
Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, worked closely with Zarif to broker the nuclear pact, which eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for guarantees that Tehran would dismantle key parts of its nuclear program and subject it to monitoring.
In May, Tillerson told reporters following the reelection of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — a key architect of the 2015 nuclear deal — that he would be prepared to meet with his Iranian counterpart at the appropriate time. “In all likelihood,” he said, “we will talk at the right time.”
The Trump administration has accused Iran of reneging on commitments it has made on the agreement, citing advances Tehran has made in its ballistic missile program. On Thursday, Trump claimed Iran is violating “the spirit” of the nuclear pact, calling it “one of the worst deals I have ever seen.”
But key U. S. allies maintain that Iran has largely abided by the accord. And Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Monday that Iran’s obligations “are being implemented.