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EU Backs US-Iran Talks, but Experts Call Them Unlikely

By Valeria Jegisman, Danila Galperovich August 29, 2019

EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini on Thursday said the bloc would support talks between the United States and Iran, as long as the current nuclear deal with Tehran was preserved.

"We are always in favor of talks," Mogherini said before entering an informal meeting of European Union ministers in Helsinki. "The more people talk, the more people understand each other better, on the basis of clarity and on the basis of respect."

The conciliatory remarks followed a fractious G-7 summit in Biarritz, where President Donald Trump's openness to a proposed summit with Iranian leaders – an idea proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron – was a rare moment of political comity.

But according to some experts, U.S.-EU differences over the 2015 deal known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) may undercut any progress toward U.S.-Iran talks.

"The U.S., without really consulting anybody, pulled out of the JCPOA, and as a result we now have a major crisis in Iran," American Foreign Policy Council senior fellow Stephen Blank told VOA's Russian service earlier this week, calling differences over the JCPOA emblematic of deeper "divisive tendencies in the G-7."

"[G-7] is supposed to be an effort to coordinate among the seven largest economies in the world ... a common approach to major international programs, and they're having great difficulty doing this," he said. "This tells you that this institution is subject to the same kinds of divisive pressures and failures that we see in other major international security institutions – the U.N., for example – and that it's therefore much less effective than it could be."

European countries have attempted to craft a workaround for businesses to bypass sanctions that the U.S. reimposed on Iran after the Trump White House withdrew from the agreement, citing concerns that Tehran had done nothing to curtail expansionist behavior in the Middle East and was still determined to build nuclear weapons.

"The Europeans did not want to pull out of the JCPOA and, led by Macron, many of the members are trying to keep that in play, whereas the United States is opposed to that," Blank said. "And then of course you have the surprise visit of the Iranian foreign minister, which caught the U.S. by surprise."

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stopped in Biarritz on Sunday, his first stop of an Asia swing, to canvass for support for the nuclear deal. An Iranian source said the switch to the French resort was a last-minute decision after Zarif's French counterpart extended the invitation, which one U.S. official called "a surprise."

"So, again, we see that this is part of the lack of cohesion of the [G-7] institution," said Blank. "It's also a failure of American policy to bring its allies on board or to coordinate with them beforehand, and also that they spring these surprises on President Trump. That normally doesn't happen. So that already tells you a great deal. Now, will this lead to some sort of negotiation? I'm skeptical, but it remains to be seen. You can't rule it out. To me, the main thing is that it highlights that there's no unity among the allies on these issues."

Differences on Russia

Blank's comments largely reflected those by other observers, such as former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow, now with the Atlantic Council research institute, who described Trump as a solitary figure in Biarritz.

As fellow G-7 leaders discussed issues like Iran and fires in the Amazon rainforest, Trump raised cackles when he asked why Russia should not be included in the talks, given its size and role in global affairs.

"It's clear Trump was largely isolated at the G-7 meeting on this issue, despite some conflicting signals beforehand about the French position," Vershbow told VOA. "But Macron, as I understand it, was as firm as others, including [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, [British Prime Minister Boris] Johnson, [Canadian Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau, that the whole reason for Russia being ejected was the aggression against Ukraine, and that nothing has fundamentally changed since then."

Macron has advocated inviting Putin to the 2020 G-7 summit, which, by rotation, is scheduled to be held in the United States.

"But for Trump, part of this is 'being the anti-Obama,' to the point that he even blames [former President Barack] Obama for the loss of Crimea rather than Putin," he added, referring to Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula.

"At the same time, it reflects his pattern of having only praise and admiration for Putin," Vershbow said. "But in practice, I don't think it's going to be any consensus to bring Russia back into the G-8."

Central to the question of readmitting Russia to the intergovernmental organization of the world's largest economies is what the world would stand to gain from such a move.

"In terms of economic power, [Russia] has a smaller GDP than the other G-7 members and has never been a real player in determining the international financial and economic policy," Vershbow said. "And on the geopolitical issues, [Russia] is mostly a spoiler rather than a contributor to solutions on issues that the G-7 have traditionally discussed, whether it's climate change, Iran, stability in Africa, or particular crises like the Amazon fires.

"But Trump has kind of this simplistic view of the world that Russia is still a superpower," he said.

Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union, called Trump's musings on Russia "designed to stir up controversy."

"[Trump] knows, and the Russians know, that you need the consensus of the G-7 in order to admit someone as a member as opposed to just inviting them as a guest," Sestanovich, who is now a Columbia University professor and Council on Foreign Relations fellow, told VOA. "Trump has the ability, as the host [of the G-7] next year, to invite guests, but he also acknowledged that this would be somewhat insulting for Putin to be merely a guest.

"If one really wanted to make something happen, you would not just say, 'I think we should invite Putin.' You would take seriously the reasons that Putin was kicked out ... and on this, as far as I can tell, the president is not actually trying to address the problem," he said. "So I think he's not serious about this. And I think the Russians have figured that out."

Asked why, in his assessment, the U.S. president would make such a remark, Sestanovich said that question assumes "the president has a reason as opposed to an uncontrollable impulse."

"If the president wants to gain some favor with Putin, he can't do it by raising the idea in public in a way that everyone else then opposes," he said. "Sometimes people say the president raises outrageous ideas so as to deflect attention from something else."

Sestanovich then paused silently for several seconds.

"I don't have an answer for you because a serious politician would know that you can't just raise this and expect to solve the problem," he said. "But the president is not a serious politician."

Serious efforts to readmit Russia to the organization, Sestanovich said, entails formally addressing the reasons underlying Russia's expulsion from the G-8.

"He doesn't seem to be interested in doing that because it's hard, it might offend Putin, and it might demonstrate that he can't achieve real results," he said. "So he just raises it as though it were a matter of kind of cocktail party conversation."

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee announced plans to investigate Trump's proposal to host the 2020 G-7 summit at his Miami golf resort.

This story originated in VOA's Russian service. Some information is from AFP.

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