European powers reject Iran ‘ultimatums’ on nuclear deal

European powers say Iran must “implement its commitments under the JCPoA in full as it has done until now and to refrain from any escalatory steps”.
Thursday 09/05/2019
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, speaks at a meeting of the International donor group for Palestine at the EU headquarters in Brussels, April 30. (AFP)
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, speaks at a meeting of the International donor group for Palestine at the EU headquarters in Brussels, April 30. (AFP)

LONDON – European powers said Thursday that they still backed the nuclear deal with Iran, but rejected any “ultimatums” from Tehran to keep it alive.

“We reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran’s compliance on the basis of Iran’s performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments” under a 2015 deal, the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany said in a statement.

Iran said Wednesday it had stopped respecting limits on its nuclear activities agreed under the deal with major powers until they find a way to bypass renewed US sanctions, as Washington accused Tehran of resorting to “blackmail”.

Tehran said it was responding to the sweeping unilateral sanctions that Washington has reimposed since it quit the agreement one year ago, which have dealt a severe blow to the Iranian economy.

In their statement, the Europeans underlined “our own firm commitments under the agreement including as regards sanctions-lifting for the benefit of the Iranian people” but criticised the US sanctions.

“In this regard, we regret the re-imposition of sanctions by the United States following their withdrawal from the JCPoA,” — Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — as the nuclear deal is known.

“We call on countries not party to the JCPoA to refrain from taking any actions that impede the remaining parties’ ability to fully perform their commitments.”

The European powers added that they were “determined to continue pursuing efforts to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran” in an effort to keep the imperilled pact afloat.

But it said that Iran must at the same time “implement its commitments under the JCPoA in full as it has done until now and to refrain from any escalatory steps”.

France ‘concerned’ by Iran’s shrinkback from nuclear deal

France said Wednesday it was “concerned” by Iran’s statements that it has decided to weaken some of its commitments under the nuclear deal and called on it to avoid any action that could lead to an “escalation”.

“It is important to avoid any action that would prevent the enactment of the obligations by parties currently upholding the agreement or that might fuel an escalation,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

France, he said, “strongly calls on Iran to continue to respect all of its nuclear obligations”.

French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly has not ruled out European sanctions on Iran if it did not fulfil all of its commitments under the accord, telling broadcasters BFMTV and RMC Radio that “those are among things to be looked at”.

The US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration seek to impose even harsher curbs on Iran’s economy, notably by cutting most of its oil exports and preventing it from any transactions involving the US dollar or US entities.

Washington has also designated Iran’s main military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which also controls swathes of the Iranian economy, as a “foreign terrorist organisation”.

Iran doubles down 

On Wednesday, the US announced added sanctions on Iran’s steel and mining sectors and put “other nations on notice that allowing Iranian steel and other metals into your ports will no longer be tolerated”.

France, Britain and Germany early this established a special trade mechanism called Instex in a bid to allow Iran to keep trading with EU companies while bypassing the US sanctions.

Iran, though, has expressed skepticism about how effective that and other European provisions are, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested Wednesday that Instex transactions could still be at risk of US sanctions.

Iran threatened Wednesday to enrich its uranium stockpile closer to weapons-grade levels in 60 days if world powers fail to negotiate new terms for its 2015 nuclear deal, raising regional tensions as a US aircraft carrier and bombers headed to the Middle East to confront Tehran.

A televised address by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who once pledged that the landmark deal would draw Iran closer to the West, saw the cleric instead pressure Europe to shield Tehran from the sanctions imposed by the US.

Rouhani’s threats put the world on notice that it cannot continue to rely on Iran complying with terms of the unraveling deal in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, a US campaign of sanctions hammering Iran’s anemic economy and blocking its sale of oil on the global market is only making life worse, putting further pressure on both its Shia theocracy and its 80 million people.

“We felt that the nuclear deal needs a surgery, and the painkiller pills of the last year have been ineffective,” Rouhani said. “This surgery is for saving the deal, not destroying it.”

Iran on Wednesday stopped its sale of excess uranium and heavy water as a first step, Rouhani said, something required under the deal. The US last week ended deals allowing Iran to exchange its enriched uranium for unrefined yellowcake uranium with Russia, and to sell its heavy water, which is used as a coolant in nuclear reactors, to Oman.

In 60 days, if no new deal is in place, Iran will increase its enrichment of uranium beyond the accord-permitted 3.67%, which can fuel a commercial nuclear power plant. Rouhani did not say how far Iran would be willing to enrich, although the head of its nuclear program again reiterated Iran could reach 20% enrichment within four days.

Once a country enriches uranium to around 20%, scientists say the time needed to reach the 90% threshold for weapons-grade uranium is halved. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. However, Iranian state television’s English-language service Press TV, citing sources close to presidency, said the country would withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if Europeans sought to sanction Iran at the UN Security Council.

Rouhani also said that if the 60 days pass without action, Iran will halt a Chinese-led effort to redesign its Arak heavy water nuclear reactor. Such reactors produce plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met Wednesday in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and offered a letter as well.

“If the five countries join negotiations and help Iran to reach its benefits in the field of oil and banking, Iran will return to its commitments according to the nuclear deal,” Rouhani said.

Zarif separately issued his own warning from Moscow.

“After a year of patience, Iran stops measures that (the) US has made impossible to continue,” he tweeted. World powers have “a narrowing window to reverse this.”

(AW and agencies)