European powers urge unity to save Iran nuclear deal
The Iran nuclear deal is not yet dead, but the United Kingdom has warned there remains just a small window to save it, as European foreign ministers gather in Brussels to find ways to convince Washington and Tehran to engage in dialogue.
Tensions between the United States and Iran have escalated since US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from a landmark pact last year and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Iran has subsequently decided to no longer respect some of its obligations. Tehran says it will come back into full compliance if European powers ensure it can sell oil on global markets - a revenue stream blocked by the US sanctions regime.
"Iran is still a good year away from developing a nuclear bomb. There is still some closing, but small window to keep the deal alive," UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters ahead of the Brussels meeting.
There is still time to save the deal signed in 2015 between Iran and world powers, said Hunt, adding that, despite the US being Britain's closest ally, it disagreed on how to handle the Iran crisis.
Similarly, France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Europe had to remain united in trying to preserve the deal and convince Tehran to reverse its decision not to comply with parts of the accord.
"The Europeans have to stay united on this issue," Le Drian told reporters on Monday.
Iran's decision to reduce compliance with the deal that the United States abandoned last year was "a bad response to a bad decision", he said.
Al Jazeera's Dominic Kane, reporting from Brussels, said: "The Europeans say they have a united front. They say the deal with Iran, negotiated between themselves, Russia, China and the Obama administration, is the only one which can regulate this thorny issue."
An international row has erupted in recent weeks following the publication of leaked secret diplomatic memos from the UK ambassador to Washington which called Trump's administration "inept" and "dysfunctional". Sir Kim Darroch stepped down from his position last week after Trump tweeted personal insults towards the veteran diplomat.
In the latest twist in the saga, the right-wing Mail on Sunday newspaper published more details on Sunday, quoting Darroch accusing Trump of abandoning the nuclear deal in an effort to undermine President Barack Obama's legacy.
"On the substance, the [US] administration is set upon an act of diplomatic vandalism, seemingly for ideological and personality reasons - it was Obama's deal," Darroch wrote in a diplomatic cable to then-foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.
'Deal may collapse'
The meeting in Brussels comes a day after France, Britain and Germany - the European signatories to the accord - warned the deal could collapse and urged nations to resume talks.
The countries' joint statement released on Sunday by the French president's office called on "all stakeholders to pause, and consider the possible consequences of their actions".
It added: "We believe that the time has come to act responsibly and to look for ways to stop the escalation of tension and resume dialogue."
The accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed in Vienna by Iran, the US, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia, and promised sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Iran's nuclear programme.
Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, including on its key banking and oil sectors.
In response, Tehran announced in May it would scale back its commitments, and has since increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium above the agreed limit and has begun to enrich uranium above the 3.67 percent permitted under the agreement.
"We've heard from the spokesman of Iran's atomic energy organisation, who said Iran will go back to its pre-2015 nuclear activities if Europeans don't show they are truly committed to the deal," said Al Jazeera's Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Tehran.
"There is a sense of urgency among Iranian officials - they don't really believe the Europeans are serious about this deal any more. They are looking for concrete action from the remaining signatories to the deal. The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has praised Foreign Minister [Mohammad] Javad Zarif's team, saying with this one single agreement, the Iranians were able to abolish six UN Security Council resolutions against them - so this is a really serious deal for them. They are hoping that today's meeting in Brussels comes out with some tangible actions and provides some hope that there is a future for this deal."
In recent weeks, the three European parties to the deal confirmed a new financial mechanism designed to enable European and Iranian companies to trade without any direct financial flows - thus bypassing the US financial system - was operational.
However, the scope of the workaround vehicle called INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) is initially confined to humanitarian products such as medicine, medical devices and food, which are not directly targeted by US sanctions.
Diplomats have said that, in any case, they fear US blowback, while Iranian officials have repeatedly said INSTEX must include oil sales or provide substantial credit facilities for it to be beneficial.
French President Emmanuel Macron dispatched a top aide to Tehran last week to offer suggestions on how to freeze the current status quo to gain some time.
"We told President [Hassan] Rouhani what the parameters of a pause could be and we're waiting for a response from the Iranians, but their point of departure is relatively far because they are demanding the immediate lifting of sanctions," said a French presidential official.
Meanwhile, Rouhani said in a televised speech on Sunday that Tehran was ready to hold talks with Washington if the US lifted the sanctions and returned to the nuclear deal.
But Trump has shown no sign of backing down and said last week he would push on with yet more sanctions.
Iran has made any talks conditional on first being able to export as much oil as it did before the US withdrawal from the deal.