French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the United Nations headquarters on Monday. Image Credit: AFP

New York - When Iran’s president and foreign minister arrived in New York a year ago for the opening of the UN General Assembly, they were riding high. At news conferences and in television appearances, they cast President Donald Trump as an untrustworthy deal-breaker, and European leaders largely sided with the pair in a desperate effort to preserve the 2015 nuclear agreement after the United States renounced it.

This year could not be more different.

Suddenly, President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are on the defensive. They are denying any Iranian involvement in the destruction of two major Saudi oil facilities, an assertion that even former Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the nuclear accord four years ago and has become its biggest defender, finds far-fetched. Iran, he said, was behind the attack “one way or the other.”

Iran is now admitting how much damage the US-led sanctions have done to its economy - crashing the currency and turning a boomlet into a recession.

Zarif, while reserving most of his anger for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who he has called a “warmonger” has now turned on the Europeans. After committing to preserving the nuclear deal by compensating for much of the revenue Iran was losing, the Europeans “have failed in every single one” of their specific commitments, he said in a meeting with reporters Sunday.

On Monday evening Iran’s predicament was further complicated when Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement that blamed the Iranians for the attacks on Saudi Arabia and called on Iran to begin negotiating on broader issues than its nuclear program.

The statement, which aligned with Washington’s position on both the Saudi attacks and the need to strengthen the nuclear accord, was issued after leaders of the three countries met at the United Nations. It represented a significant shift in Europe’s position of tolerance toward Iran.

“The time has come for Iran to accept a long-term negotiation framework for its nuclear programme, as well as regional security issues, which include its missile programs,” the statement said.

Last year, three months after Trump exited the nuclear deal, Iran came to the General Assembly attempting to insert a wedge between the United States and its European allies.

But “Iran has come to this year’s UNGA with a real wake-up call that what they are able to get from Europeans is no more than some limited political cover for support of the nuclear deal,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy head of Middle East and North Africa studies for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Iranian officials, she said, have arrived in New York discovering that the Europeans cannot offer any substantive economic relief, and that even a French-led initiative to issue a credit line of $15 billion, essentially an advance payment on Iranian oil shipments, is likely to fail. Washington will most likely not issue waivers, and European banks are unwilling to join the effort if they believe they will be banned from clearing transactions in US dollars.

Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, made clear Monday that the United States would be pushing the UN Security Council to penalise the Iranians. In an appearance at the Asia Society in New York, he called on the 15-member council to extend its arms embargo on Iran, set to expire in a year under the nuclear deal. He also said Europe should sanction Iranian entities and individuals involved in the country’s drones and missile programs.

Hook said he did not want to prejudge the work of investigators of the missile attack in Saudi Arabia but said he expected action by the UN and European Union after the investigations are complete. “The international community needs to reestablish deterrence,” he said. “We are one missile attack away from a regional war.”

Two weeks ago, it appeared that Iran might find a way out, taking Trump up on his offer of negotiations. But the attacks on Saudi Arabia, and US accusations of Iranian involvement, have all but killed that possibility, US officials said.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, told reporters Sunday that President Emmanuel Macron’s mediation looked promising until the oil facility attacks, which he called a “game changer.”

France’s priorities have shifted from brokering a meeting between Tehran and Washington aimed at restarting a dialogue to just trying to prevent a military conflict.

“The meeting between Trump and Rouhani is not the No. 1 subject,” Le Drian said. “The priority subject is whether we can restart a deescalation path with the different actors.”

Zarif said that the decision Friday by the Americans to designate Iran’s central bank as a financier of terrorism, making it virtually impossible for international institutions to do business with it, meant that Trump “knowingly or unknowingly closed the door to negotiations.”

All this may be posturing. For months now, Iranian elites have been signaling that the country would have no choice but to deal with Trump - Zarif, who has spent much of his life in the United States, now predicts that the president is more likely than not to be reelected.

On Wednesday morning, Zarif will join the nations that agreed to the 2015 nuclear deal - with the conspicuous exception of the United States - at a meeting about the future of the agreement.

The reality is that the accord is now on life support.