BRUSSELS — European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday scrambled to work out how to salvage the Iran nuclear deal despite Tehran’s breaching the agreed limits on its uranium enrichment program and warning that it might go much further.
Arriving at the meeting, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said there was a little time left to save the Iran deal.
“Iran is still a good year away from developing a nuclear bomb,” Hunt said. “There is still some closing, but small window to keep the deal alive.”
Although the United States has withdrawn from the agreement, the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said that the deal was still the only available option to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
“The deal has avoided Iran developing a nuclear weapon and today everyone recognizes that there is no alternative,” she said after the foreign ministers’ meeting. “This is the most dramatic and difficult stage.”
The European signatories to the deal, Britain, France, and Germany, said in a joint statement Sunday evening they were still committed to the deal and regretted that the United States had reimposed sanctions on Iran “even though that country had implemented its commitments under the agreement.”
“We believe that the time has come to act responsibly and to seek ways to stop the escalation of tension and resume dialogue,” the three countries said in the statement. “The risks are such that it is necessary that all stakeholders take a break, and consider the possible consequences of their actions.”
But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that he saw little reason to be optimistic that the European signatories could save the agreement — known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — by alleviating the punishing effects of US sanctions against Iran.
“The Europeans claim they were willing to maintain the JCPOA, but we have not seen Europe yet to be ready for an investment,” he said Sunday after arriving in New York City for a meeting of the United Nations, Iran’s state-run Press TV reported. Iran has sent mixed signals about its intentions in recent days, with President Hassan Rouhani expressing a willingness to open new talks with Washington — once sanctions are removed.
“We are always ready for negotiation,” he said in a televised speech. “The moment you stop sanctions and bullying, we are ready to negotiate.”
But a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said Monday that unless Europe could salvage the deal, his country would return its nuclear program to its status before the accord, when its uranium stockpile was much larger and some of the element had been much more highly enriched.
Tensions with Tehran have mounted since President Trump last year withdrew the United States from the 2015 accord that scaled back Iran’s nuclear program and reimposed economic sanctions that had been lifted under the deal. The limits set in the deal were intended to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Trump imposed additional sanctions this year, trying to cut off Iran’s ability to sell oil, a pillar of its economy.
Britain, France, and Germany have made a commitment to ease the impact of US sanctions but so far have not found an effective way to do so.
The centerpiece of their efforts is the creation of a kind of exchange that would allow European companies to do business with Iran in a way that bypasses the American banking system, but Tehran has said that the system, known as Instex, is inadequate.
Arriving at the meeting of Europeans on Monday, Josep Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister and nominee to become the EU’s foreign affairs chief, said, “We will do what we can to guarantee that there is no economic embargo against Iran and that European companies can continue working there.”
Despite the renewed sanctions, Iran complied with its commitments under the nuclear deal for a year after Trump’s withdrawal. But the confrontation has escalated since the US president imposed further sanctions.