U.S. Iran Deal Exit Brings Russia and China Closer to Europe as They Meet Behind Trump's Back

The top diplomats of China, EU, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. have assured Iran that they were willing to salvage a historic nuclear deal abandoned by the U.S.

The deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was forged under the administration of former President Barack Obama in 2015 and scrapped by his successor, President Donald Trump, in May. With Iran looking to face stricter U.S. sanctions, the foreign ministers of the EU and five other nations who signed the nuclear agreement met Friday in Vienna in an attempt to negotiate a viable framework in the absence of Washington.

Reading an official statement from the Joint Commission of the JCPOA, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said the ministers "deeply regret" the U.S. departure from the agreement. She said they "reconfirmed their commitment to the full and effective implementation of the nuclear deal," calling it "a key element of the global nonproliferation architecture and a significant achievement of multilateral diplomacy."

"The participants recognized that, in return for the implementation by Iran of its nuclear-related commitments, the lifting of sanctions, including the economic dividends arising from it, constitutes an essential part of the JCPOA," the statement said, later adding that the initiatives listed were "aimed at preserving the nuclear deal which is in the security interest of all."

Foreign ministers of the EU and five other nations who signed the nuclear agreement met Friday in an attempt to negotiate a viable framework in the absence of Washington, in Vienna, Austria, on July 6. They agreed to uphold the JCPOA, the historic nuclear agreement abandoned by President Donald Trump in May. Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Trump has long criticized the accord as being too soft on Iran, whose revolutionary Shiite Muslim government has been at odds with the U.S. since overthrowing a previously CIA-installed monarchy in 1979. Trump has said the JCPOA did not go far enough to address Iran's nonnuclear activities, accusing the agreement of using funds unfrozen by sanctions' relief to support militant groups across the Middle East and to continue developing its military might at home. Despite numerous reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency affirming that Iran was adhering to the deal's terms, Trump also questioned Tehran's compliance and sided with Israel and Saudi Arabia in urging a tougher approach.

Without the U.S., however, other world powers have struggled to agree on how to keep the deal alive. Iran has warned it would be willing to walk away from the deal. Iranian leaders have threatened to walk away from the JCPOA, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif even suggested the country could fully restart its nuclear production, which it has maintained is strictly for peaceful purposes. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his hard-line clerical following have been particularly skeptical of Europe's commitment to the deal, but Zarif on Friday praised the "serious and constructive" talks.

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"My conclusion was that all JCPOA parties indicated commitment in the meeting…to the political will to stand against such American move (to withdraw from the deal)," Zarif said, saying he thinks the operational methods proposed in the Friday meeting seem to be "practical," according to Iran's semiofficial Tasnim News Agency.

Zarif and other ministers also held their own separate, closed-door meetings. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a joint press conference in which the Lavrov said, "Just like our Chinese counterparts, we are interested in preserving and fully implementing the JCPOA. The situation is complex, but, just like China and other parties to the deal, we are committed to international law and the U.N. Security Council's decision this plan was enshrined in thus becoming part of international law," according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency.

A graphic updated May 16 explains the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under the terms of the deal, signed on July 14, 2015, Iran has agreed to reduce by approximately two-thirds its installed centrifuges. IAEA/NSSPI/IEER/Reuters

The Vienna conference highlighted one of the latest international disputes on whether to leave the U.S. as the outlier. Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and a number of U.N. agencies has drawn widespread criticism from Washington's traditional allies. The Republican leader has also reportedly threatened to leave the World Trade Organization, through which China, the EU and Russia were among the parties to raise cases against the U.S. in response to recently implemented steel and aluminum tariffs.

Many European powers remain deeply skeptical of Russia and have extended their sanctions against it—in response to Moscow's alleged election tampering, intervention in Ukraine and attempted assassinations. Yet they have also come out strongly against the possibility of their companies being hit by U.S. sanctions over doing business with Iran. Trump has refused to offer exemptions to Europe over trading with Tehran and has sought to reduce Iran's oil exports to zero, a threat that has pushed reformist Iranian President Hassan Rouhani closer to his hard-liner rivals at home.