Nations that struck the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, except for the United States, meet on Monday in what many diplomats fear may prove a quixotic effort to keep the agreement alive after US sanctions targeting Iranian oil exports resume in November.
Ministers from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and Iran will gather in New York on Monday to grapple with US President Trump's May 8 decision to withdraw from the deal and restore the full force of US sanctions on Iran.
Their delicate, and perhaps unrealistic, task is to build a case for Tehran to respect the deal's limits on its nuclear program even though Washington has pulled out, depriving Iran of many of the economic benefits it was promised.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani "needs arguments to defend the deal in the face of the radicals. He needs us to give him ammunition," said a senior European diplomat, referring to Iranian hard-liners who oppose the agreement.
"We are trying to give him ammunition, but what we can do, to be honest, is limited," the diplomat added.
The crux of the deal, negotiated over almost two years by the Obama administration, was that Iran would restrain its nuclear program in return for the relaxation of sanctions that had crippled its economy. Mr. Trump considered it flawed because it did not include curbs on ballistic missiles or regional activity.
The United States began reimposing economic sanctions this summer and the most draconian measures, which seek to force Iran's major customers to stop buying its oil, resume Nov. 5.
Their impending return has contributed to a slide in Iran's currency. The rial has lost about two-thirds of its value this year, hitting a record low against the US dollar this month.
The European Union has implemented a law to shield European companies from US sanctions. Still, there are limits to what it can do to counter the oil sanctions, under which Washington can cut off from the US financial system any bank that facilitates an oil transaction with Iran.
Many European companies are withdrawing or have withdrawn from Iran because of US sanctions that could cut them off from the American market if they stay.
Iran believes the United States acted in bad faith by withdrawing from the deal even as Tehran has adhered to its terms and has rejected US overtures to meet.
The most recent confidential report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based UN watchdog, found Iran had stayed within the main limitations imposed under the deal, whose formal name is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
In recent weeks, Iranian officials have begun arguing that if the Europeans cannot preserve trade with Iran, perhaps Tehran should reduce, but not eliminate, its compliance with the accord.
On Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was quoted as telling Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine that Iran could "reduce its implementation" and possibly increase uranium enrichment activities if the deal was jeopardized by "the actions of the Americans and the passivity of the Europeans."
European diplomats wish to avoid this. Hoping to keep Iran's nuclear program in check, they have told Tehran that if it stops carrying out the deal to the letter, they will have no choice but to restore their own sanctions.
"They keep telling us the situation is horrible, they are going to leave the accord or just keep partially implementing the deal. It’s the same old music, but for now they continue to implement the JCPOA," said a second senior European diplomat.
"We [are] warning them that if they were to pull out it would hurt them more than us," he added.
This story was reported by Reuters.