US ramps up Iran pressure as EU summit bid fails
UNITED NATIONS - The United States on Wednesday announced new sanctions to stop Iran from selling its oil, casting a cloud over last-minute European efforts to arrange a tension-reducing encounter between the adversaries' presidents.
French President Emmanuel Macron shuttled between his US and Iranian counterparts over two days at the United Nations, but acknowledged that time was running short.
On US President Donald Trump's last scheduled day at the annual UN summit of world leaders, his administration said it was imposing sanctions on Chinese companies that have purchased Iranian oil.
"We're telling China, and all nations -- know that we will sanction every violation of sanctions of all activity," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a pressure group opposed to Iran's clerical regime on the sidelines of the United Nations.
China, which is embroiled in a series of disputes with the United States including a trade war, is believed to be the biggest foreign buyer of Iranian oil.
The Trump administration in May said that the United States would unilaterally force all countries to stop buying Iran's oil, its major export, sending tensions soaring.
The United States blamed Iran for an attack earlier this month on the oil infrastructure of rival Saudi Arabia, which is also waging a devastating offensive in Yemen.
France, Britain and Germany this week said they agreed with the US findings.
"Some have said that they've joined the United States; I think they have joined reality," Pompeo said of the Europeans.
Seeking to salvage deal
But the European powers, while criticizing Iran, believe that diplomacy is the best way forward.
The Europeans want Trump to return to a nuclear accord negotiated by former president Barack Obama, under which Iran drastically reduced its nuclear program in return for unmet promises of sanctions relief.
"The conditions have been met for a rapid resumption of negotiations," Macron told reporters late Tuesday.
"It is now up to Iran and the United States to seize the opportunity," he said.
Escorting a smiling Rouhani to a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Macron said that time was running short.
"If he leaves the country without meeting with President Trump, honestly this is a lost opportunity because he will not come back in a few months," Macron said.
"And President Trump will not go to Tehran, so they have to meet now," he said, as Johnson voiced agreement.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Wednesday said he had not given up hope.
"The fact that all sides are basically willing to hold talks - the Iranian side as well as the American side - is a positive signal," he said.
"Now it's about the conditions," he said. "And this will not be easy."
Trump under pressure
After weeks of speculation of a meeting, Trump's attention may be elsewhere on Wednesday.
Leaders of the rival Democratic Party on Tuesday announced that they were opening an impeachment inquiry against him over allegations he pressured Ukraine's president to investigate the son of Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner seeking to challenge him in next year's election.
Trump, in a grim-faced speech Tuesday at the United Nations, warned that the United States would not ease economic pressure on Iran -- a condition set by Rouhani for any meeting.
Rouhani -- responding to Trump's speech in an interview with Fox News, which the tycoon president is known to watch avidly -- said that the withdrawal from the nuclear accord had badly shaken confidence.
"Mr. Trump exited without a valid justification, and illegally, from an international agreement. So, if the United States of America's government is willing to talk, it must create the needed conditions," Rouhani said.
Despite his strong words, Trump is known for his fondness for made-for-television drama, as witnessed in his three meetings with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un, and for following last-minute gut instincts.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan both also met with the Iranian and US leaders.
Khan said both Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom he met on his way to New York, had asked him to mediate with Iran and "maybe come up with another deal."
Trump, however, said Monday he was "not looking for any mediators," saying of Iran, "they know who to call."