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European nations move to keep Iran nuclear deal alive, despite Trump’s threats

The reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr in Iran.
The reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr in Iran.Majid Asgaripour/Associated Press/File 2010

WASHINGTON — When President Trump withdrew from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal last year, it wasn’t exactly a quiet departure. Within days, the United States threatened sanctions, not only against Iran, but also against the foreign companies trading with it.

That threat was directed to major enterprises in countries that are some of the United States’ closest allies, including Germany, Britain, and France. Europe immediately announced it would not be bullied into following the United States out of the nuclear deal, but the rationale in Washington was that the Europeans would eventually budge.

That bet appears not to have gone according to plan — for both sides.

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On Thursday, the German TV network NDR and Reuters reported that Britain, France, and Germany had registered a transaction channel that could, theoretically, allow some European companies to keep trading with Iran, despite the threat of US sanctions against banks and other companies.

To avoid money from being traded between Iran and Europe that could be used as evidence by the United States to justify sanctions, the transaction channel is expected to essentially operate as a clearinghouse for credit points. If an Iranian company trades with a European counterpart, it can use those credits to pay for purchased goods. That system works only if the trading is somewhat balanced, however.

Once operational, the system could represent a major European effort to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive, though it is unlikely to restore European-Iranian trade to its pre-Trump levels.

Neither the German Foreign Ministry nor the British Foreign Office responded to requests for comment on Thursday.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that the governments of Britain, Germany, and France would be shareholders in the de facto clearinghouse, which means that if Washington is serious about its threats, it would probably have to directly sanction three of its closest allies.

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The theoretical possibility of that awkward choice comes as Trump is openly clashing with his own intelligence chiefs over Iran. While Trump previously implied that he withdrew from the deal because Tehran was seeking to build nuclear weapons, a Worldwide Threat Assessment report prepared by US intelligence officials publicly contradicted the president on Tuesday.

‘‘We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,’’ the officials wrote, echoing similar assessments by their European counterparts.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Trump lashed out at the intelligence chiefs, writing: ‘‘The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!’’

But Tuesday’s report that Iran is not currently pursuing a nuclear weapons program remained tough on Iran on other issues. The officials warned that Iran’s ballistic missile program still poses a threat to the United States, as do cybersecurity attacks and other military capabilities.

European agencies have reached the same conclusion, but the Iran nuclear deal was always meant to address the most frightening prospect: an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.

In their report Tuesday, US intelligence officials acknowledged the nuclear deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would delay Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons significantly, compared to a no-deal scenario. ‘‘Iran’s continued implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year,’’ they wrote.

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Iran has threatened to resume nuclear activities that are currently dormant if Europe also withdraws from the deal.

So far, Britain, France, and Germany have stuck to the agreement, alongside China and Russia. By unilaterally leaving the deal, European leaders have maintained, Trump has increased the likelihood of a direct military confrontation with Iran.

Politically, the decision to maintain their support for the deal has put the Europeans in an awkward position between their foes and their key ally, the United States. When Iran was suspected of being behind a foiled assassination plot in Denmark in October, Europe’s initially muted response struck some as an effort to preserve the deal at all costs.

On a practical level, maintaining the agreement with Iran has proved to be difficult, as well. Amid the threat of US sanctions, almost all major European companies trading with Iran withdrew from the country, even as European officials insisted they were working on a solution to shield them from that risk.

Nothing has changed about Europe’s underlying determination to stick to the Iran deal. But Iran’s alleged role in the Danish assassination plot resulted in more hesitancy in Brussels and other EU capitals to stand by Tehran.

And practical difficulties in setting up the transaction channel and a desire among a number of EU member states to avoid US anger have made Europe’s long-term response to Trump’s withdrawal less of a bold move than some had hoped for.

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The outcome may still be bold enough to trigger Trump’s fury, while at the same time failing to provide the risk-free link between Iran and Europe that was initially promised. For both Europe and Trump, their approaches to the Iran nuclear deal have turned into bets in which everyone may end up losing.