European powers urge Trump to preserve Iran nuclear deal

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson attends a news conference with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel and European Union's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini after meeting Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (unseen) in Brussels, Belgium January 11, 2018.

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain, France and Germany called on Donald Trump on Thursday to uphold a pact curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions on the eve of a sanctions ruling by the U.S. president they fear could torpedo an accord he has relentlessly criticized.

Hailed by its admirers as key to stopping Iran from building a nuclear bomb, the deal lifted economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear program. It was also signed by China, France, Russia, Britain, Germany and the European Union.

The U.S. Congress requires the president to periodically certify Iran’s compliance and issue a waiver to allow U.S sanctions to remain suspended. The next deadline is on Friday.

In sharp contrast to Trump’s view that the 2015 pact was “the worst deal ever negotiated”, the foreign ministers of the three countries and the EU’s top diplomat said there was no alternative to it and that sanctions should remain lifted.

“We agree on this approach, we want to protect (the deal) against every possible decision that might undermine it,” Germany’s Sigmar Gabriel said alongside his French and British counterparts and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini after meeting Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“It is absolutely necessary to have this to prevent the development of nuclear weapons at a time when other parts of the world are discussing how to get them,” Gabriel said, later specifically mentioning North Korea in his remarks.

Trump’s choice comes at a delicate time for Iran’s government, which faced protests over economic hardships and corruption that are linked to frustration among younger Iranians who hoped to see more benefits from the lifting of sanctions.

The meeting in Brussels was choreographed to send a message to Washington before Trump is due to decide whether to re-impose oil sanctions lifted under the deal. If that happens, Iran has said it would no longer be bound by the pact and could return to producing enriched uranium.

Zarif tweeted that the Brussels meeting had shown a “strong consensus” that Iran was complying with the pact, had the right to enjoy its economic benefits and “any move that undermines (it) is unacceptable”.

“E3 (Germany, France and Britain) and EU fully aware that Iran’s continued compliance (is) conditioned on full compliance by the US,” Zarif added.

European countries have benefited from renewed trade with Iran as sanctions have been lifted, while U.S. companies are still largely barred from doing business with the Islamic Republic due to other sanctions unrelated to the nuclear issue..

“GOOD NEIGHBOUR”

“The deal is working. It is delivering on its main goal which means keeping the Iranian nuclear program in check and under close surveillance,” Mogherini said, adding that the International Atomic Energy Agency had shown in nine reports that Iran is meeting its commitments.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the pact was also a way for Iran to show it was “a good neighbour” in the region by complying.

Trump formally rejected the deal in October, although the United States has not yet pulled out.

That major shift in U.S. policy put the United States at odds with its European allies, as well as Russia and China that are also signatories to the nuclear accord, in the most visible transatlantic split on foreign policy since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

European governments are troubled by Trump’s “America first” rhetoric and inconsistent statements on NATO and the European Union, while they consider the Iran nuclear deal one of West’s the biggest diplomatic achievements in decades.

In a gesture to Trump, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Paris shared Washington’s concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program and involvement in wars in Yemen and Syria, but stressed the nuclear deal should still stand.

“We do not hide other disagreements, which exist … both in the ballistic field and over Iran’s actions in the whole region,” Le Drian said.

Tehran has repeatedly vowed to continue building up its ballistic missile arsenal, one of the biggest in the Middle East, saying it is for defense purposes only. The West sees it as a threat and has installed a U.S.-built missile shield in southeastern Europe, under NATO command.

Gabriel said Zarif agreed at the Brussels meeting to discuss the issues in a more regular and structured way, but diplomats said there was no immediate timetable for talks.

(Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Peter Maushagen; Editing by Robin Pomeroy, William Maclean)

Iran stages pro-government rallies, cleric urges firm punishment for protest leaders

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of government supporters rallied across Iran on Friday, swearing allegiance to the clerical establishment and accusing arch enemy the United States of instigating the largest anti-government protests in nearly a decade, state TV reported.

Tehran’s Friday prayer leader called on authorities to deal “firmly” with those responsible for igniting over a week of illegal rallies, in which 22 people were killed and more than 1,000 people were arrested, according to Iranian officials.

“But those ordinary Iranians who were deceived by these American-backed rioters should be dealt with based on Islamic clemency,” cleric Ahmad Khatami told worshippers at Tehran university, TV reported.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”

The anti-government rallies erupted on December 28 in Iran’s holy Shi’ite city of Mashhad after the government announced plans to increase fuel prices and dismantle monthly cash handout to lower-income Iranians.

The protests spread to more than 80 cities and rural towns, staged by thousands of young and working class Iranians angry about official corruption, unemployment and a deepening gap between rich and poor.

The authorities have produced no evidence of U.S. involvement in the protests, which lacked a unifying leader.

GUARDS QUELLED UNREST

But in Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Iran’s statements that external influences fomented the unrest were not groundless and Washington used any possible method to destabilize governments it disliked.

He added that U.S. calls for an extraordinary meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the turmoil in Iran interfered with the country’s sovereignty, news agency Interfax said. The Council will meet on Friday at 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) to discuss Iran, Council president Kazakhstan has said.

Residents contacted by Reuters in various cities said the protests had shown sign of abating since Thursday, after the establishment intensified a crackdown on the protesters by dispatching Revolutionary Guards forces to several provinces.

Iran’s elite Guards and its affiliated Basij militia suppressed the country’s 2009 unrest over alleged election fraud, in which dozens of pro-reform Iranians were killed.

Iranian officials said the protests were the result of foreign instigation and mocked U.S. President Donald Trump’s support of protesters against what he called a “brutal and corrupt” establishment.

On Friday rallies, protesters chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, carrying pictures of Iran’s top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and waved Iranian flags.

Television footage of rallies in several cities showed people chanting “We support Imam Khamenei … We will not leave him alone in his fight against enemies”.

“Demonstrators demand the punishment of those behind foreign-linked riots which insulted religion and our authorities,” state television reported, referring to the anti-government protests in which social media footage showed protesters tearing down pictures of Khamenei.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”

UNITED FRONT

To allay tension, the government has suspended its plans to cut cash handouts and increase fuel prices.

“There are workers who say they have not received their salaries for months … These problems should be resolved,” Khatami said, according to state TV.

Fearing that further unrest could undermine the Islamic republic altogether, Iran’s faction-ridden political elite has displayed a united front.

But Khamenei and his hardline allies have criticized Rouhani for failing to revive the economy after most sanctions on Iran were lifted in 2016 under a nuclear deal reached between Tehran and major powers aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear program.

Rouhani secured the deal in 2015, raising hopes of better economic times among many Iranians, but discontent has since risen over the lack of broad improvement in living standards.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean)