Europeans Reject ‘Ultimatums’ From Iran as It Eases Nuclear Curbs

BERLIN (Reuters) -
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday. (Reuters/Evgenia Novozhenina)

European countries said on Thursday they wanted to preserve Iran‘s nuclear deal and rejected “ultimatums” from Tehran, after Iran scaled back curbs on its nuclear program and threatened moves that might breach the pact.

Iran announced steps on Wednesday to ease curbs on its nuclear program, in response to new U.S. sanctions imposed after Washington abandoned the deal a year ago.

Experts say the new moves announced by Tehran so far are not likely to violate the terms of the deal immediately.

But President Hassan Rouhani said that unless world powers find a way to protect Iran‘s banking and oil industries from U.S. sanctions within 60 days, Iran would start enriching uranium beyond limits allowed in the deal.

“We reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran‘s compliance on the basis of Iran‘s performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA and the NPT,” read a statement issued jointly by the European Union and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany.

The JCPOA refers to the 2015 nuclear deal, and the NPT refers to the non-proliferation treaty that bans countries from developing nuclear weapons.

They also said they regretted the re-imposition of sanctions by the United States and added that they remained committed to preserving and fully implementing the Iran nuclear deal.

“We are determined to continue pursuing efforts to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran,” said the European states, adding that that included getting a special purpose vehicle aimed at enabling business with Iran off the ground.

The 2015 nuclear deal requires Iran to curb its nuclear program in return for the elimination of international sanctions. It was signed by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

The administration of President Donald Trump abandoned the agreement a year ago and imposed U.S. sanctions, which it has ratcheted up this month, effectively ordering all countries to halt all purchases of Iranian oil or face their own sanctions.

Washington’s European allies have opposed the U.S. decision to abandon the nuclear deal, which they say plays into the hands of hard-liners in Iran and undermines pragmatists within the Iranian leadership who want to open the country up to the world.

They have tried to develop a system to allow outside investors to do business with Iran while avoiding falling foul of U.S. sanctions. But in practice this has failed so far, with all major European companies that had announced plans to invest in Iran saying they would no longer do so.

Iran has always denied that it was seeking a nuclear weapon, but the United Nations concluded Tehran had been doing so before 2003.

Tehran says it wants to abide by the nuclear deal but cannot do so if its economy is still subjected to sanctions. A spokesman for Iran‘s Atomic Energy Organization said on Thursday Tehran’s goal was to bring the agreement “back on track.”

Supporters of the nuclear deal, including Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama and European allies, say the pact extends the time it would take Iran to make a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and guarantees that it would be caught.

Lifting sanctions would show ordinary Iranians the benefits of cooperating with the world and make it harder for hard-liners to roll back reforms, they argue.

The Trump administration argues that the nuclear deal was flawed because it is not permanent, does not address Iran‘s missile program and does not punish Iran for what Washington considers meddling in regional countries.

Trump’s hard-line stance is supported by Israel and by Arab allies of the United States such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which consider Iran a foe and gain leverage over global oil prices from having its exports taken off the market.