BRUSSELS — European diplomats gathering Monday to try to save the Iran nuclear deal warned that the agreement was close to unraveling, but several held out hope that they would be able to lure Tehran back into compliance.
Britain, France and Germany have been reluctant to reimpose sanctions on Iran despite its decision to breach uranium-enrichment limits in recent weeks, saying that they still believe they may be able to save the deal through negotiations with Tehran.
“We think there is a closing but small window to keep the deal alive,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Monday on his way into a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels. “What we’re looking for is to give Iran a way out of this.”
European countries are racing to put together a complicated trading tool that would allow them to shelter business with Iran from ever-expanding U.S. sanctions against the country. E.U. diplomats say they believe that Iran’s breaches of deal are negotiating tactics to win more economic benefits rather than a full-blown decision to walk away from the agreement.
But leaders also say that with tensions spiking in the region, a misstep could lead to an unintended conflict. Britain detained an Iranian oil tanker this month that it said was carrying fuel to Syria in violation of sanctions. Iranian ships last week then tried to block a British oil tanker traversing the Strait of Hormuz just off Iran’s coast, but they were turned back by a British naval escort.
The decision by President Trump a year ago to unilaterally walk away from the 2015 deal infuriated Europeans, who viewed the agreement as a cornerstone of their security strategy to avoid an Iran with nuclear weapons. Europeans have been working on the trade tool in defiance of calls from Washington to join a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
“Friends sometimes disagree,” Hunt said.
The leaders of France, Germany and Britain late Sunday called for an easing of tensions, saying in a joint statement that “the risks are such that it is necessary for all stakeholders to pause and consider the possible consequences of their actions.”
European foreign ministers said Monday that they still backed the trading tool as a way to encourage Iran to come back into the agreement.
But Europeans warn that pressures from both Washington and Tehran could stretch the deal to its breaking point. Tensions have spiked between the United States and Iran in recent weeks, following a spate of attacks on commercial tankers and the downing of a U.S. Navy spy drone by Iranian forces last month.
The Iranian move to breach the deal was “a bad response to a bad decision” by the U.S. to impose sanctions, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian told reporters on his way into the Brussels meeting.
Asked how close the deal was to falling apart, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said, “Very close, unfortunately.”
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said Sunday that Europe needs to do more to persuade Tehran to adhere to the nuclear deal. He spoke to reporters in New York, where he will attend a meeting of the United Nations Economic and Social Council on sustainable development goals.
Pledging commitment to the agreement “is totally different from being ready to make the investments required to save the deal,” Zarif said, according to Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.
“We have yet to see that [the Europeans] are prepared to invest in Iran,” he said.
China, which is also a party to the agreement, has called on the United States to reverse course, with a foreign ministry spokesman on Monday blaming Washington for the current tensions.
Some Europeans say they have little wiggle room in their effort to save the deal, which is formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
“We are being accused at the same time of supporting the Iranian regime’s violations of the JCPOA and of being too weak against the U.S.,” said a senior E.U. diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss calculations around the effort to preserve the agreement.
Under the terms of the deal, Europeans could trigger a dispute process if they believe Iran is in serious breach of the agreement. That would give about a month for negotiations before sanctions might be reimposed. But the Europeans say they are not yet at a point where they want to start the clock.
Iran is still allowing international inspectors to keep close watch over its uranium enrichment, the diplomats said. And the two steps Iran has taken that break the rules of the agreement — modestly increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and the level of enrichment — do not take it significantly closer toward producing a nuclear weapon.
If Iran significantly ramps up its enrichment, kicks out inspectors or puts mothballed centrifuges back into operation to bolster its nuclear program, that could change Europe’s calculation about sanctions, the diplomat said.
But for now, the Europeans are actually moving in the opposite direction: focusing work on a complex financial tool that would shield some trade with Iran from U.S. sanctions. E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that the bartering tool, known as Instex, was operational and processing its first transactions. More European countries are joining the effort, a signal that they do not view the current Iranian actions as requiring a tough sanctions-based response from Western nations.
Europe is also worried about an upcoming early August deadline for Washington to extend sanctions waivers on efforts to overhaul Iranian nuclear facilities to reduce their ability to make nuclear fuel. The exemptions allow Europe, Russia and China to contribute to the work. U.S. officials have discussed ending the waivers to increase pressure on Tehran. But many Europeans fear that if the waiver ended, Iran would probably break more decisively from the agreement, leading to its unraveling.
Erin Cunningham in Dubai contributed to this report.