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Iran president upbeat on European plan to save nuclear deal

Iran President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the U.N. General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25, 2019.

JEENAH MOON/BLOOMBERG

By ARSALAN SHAHLA | Bloomberg | Published: October 2, 2019

Iran's president gave an upbeat assessment of a European plan to ease the crisis over the 2015 nuclear deal that has threatened to tip the Gulf region into war.

In a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Hassan Rouhani said he found the main terms of a four-point proposal, spearheaded by his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, to revive the embattled accord "acceptable."

The plan calls for Washington to remove sanctions on Iran, allowing the Islamic Republic to export its oil and collect the revenue, in return for an Iranian commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons and help ensure Gulf security, he said. The original framework of nations that signed the deal would be reconstituted, including the U.S.

The comments are the strongest signal yet from Iran that discussions with Europe to find a way out of the nuclear crisis are making progress after months of deadlock. But major challenges remain, especially over sequencing. In public at least, Iran insists it won't talk until sanctions are lifted, and President Donald Trump has said Tehran must offer concessions to get the penalties eased.

The U.S. wants a more comprehensive agreement that also covers Iran's missile program and support for Middle East proxy forces.

To make progress, "Either the U.S. accepts that some degree of sanctions relaxation is necessary at first," said Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council of Foreign Relations. "Or the Iranians come to the conclusion that there's a risk worth taking in having some degree of direct contact" with a U.S. administration they don't trust.

Rouhani, who's under intense pressure from hardliners in Tehran to abandon an accord that's not delivering the hoped-for economic benefits, said more work was needed on the wording of the plan during expected negotiations with European countries.

Since Trump ended U.S. participation in the deal last year and reimposed sweeping sanctions, tensions have risen in the oil-rich Gulf. Tankers have been attacked and seized, drone aircraft downed by either side and there's been an escalation in fighting between Iranian and U.S. allies involved in the Yemen war.

Macron and other world powers made frantic but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to broker some sort of meeting between Rouhani and Trump at the United Nations General Assembly last week.

In a speech to commanders of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei again admonished U.S. officials, saying their so-called "maximum pressure" strategy against Iran had failed.

Iran would carry on scaling back its compliance with the nuclear deal's limits on enrichment while Europe attempts to meet Tehran's demands, he said.

"We will continue to reduce our commitments, and we should do so resolutely," Khamenei said, according to his official website.

The Macron plan includes a $15 billion credit line that would enable Iran to export oil and would also restore the P5+1 framework of nations — France, the U.K., Russia, China, Germany and the U.S. — that were signatories to the nuclear accord.

Rouhani said his European counterparts had asked him at the U.N. summit to offer alternative suggestions for the plan's phrasing so that they could be discussed and negotiated by European and Iranian ministers.

Speaking to reporters as he left Cabinet with Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif appeared more cautious. Macron's proposal "doesn't reflect our viewpoints" and needed "negotiations to precisely discuss the issues," he said.

Zarif praised the French president's enthusiasm for a deal, though, and said he's been sent a formal invitation to visit Tehran.

"We will continue to maintain contacts, including the calls with France," Zarif said, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.

Ahead of the U.N. meeting, there had been growing speculation that Trump would meet Rouhani in New York. But talks never materialized amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran after an attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities.

The U.S. and leading European nations blamed the strike on Iran, which in turn pointed to the Yemeni Houthi rebels it assists in their four-year war with a Saudi-led coalition.

Impoverished and shattered Yemen is currently the top battleground in the tussle for influence between Shiite Muslim Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

The oil-facility attacks rammed home the dangers of letting the war fester on, spurring attempts to build on recent cease-fire pledges and move to talks.

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