France has stepped up European efforts to save the Iran nuclear deal after Tehran confirmed its second breach of the terms of the agreement and threatened more in the growing fallout over the US exit from the accord.
Paris is urgently seeking a de-escalation of the crisis and will send an envoy for talks in Tehran on Tuesday after Iran’s nuclear agency said it had enriched uranium to 4.5 per cent purity and was considering lifting it to 20 per cent in 60 days’ time. The nuclear agreement allows Iran to enrich uranium up to a purity of 3.67 per cent.
In its first retaliatory gesture, Iran said last week that it had breached the internationally agreed limits on its enriched uranium stockpile.
Tehran’s step-by-step violations of the 2015 pact are both a defiant signal to Washington and a tool to press European powers to restore economic benefits Iran lost after the US unilaterally withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions last year.
President Hassan Rouhani in May said Iran would increase its nuclear activity unless European powers took concrete steps to help the country counter the economic impact of US sanctions in 60 days, a deadline that expired on Sunday.
But European countries have little room for manoeuvre on the economic front and are urging Iran to pull back from moves that would effectively spell the end of the nuclear agreement.
A much-delayed mechanism aimed at allowing Iran to counter US sanctions, known as Instex, became operational last month but its scope is likely to be limited and it is unlikely to satisfy Tehran’s demands.
“In the European court, there are not many great options in sight,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, a Middle East specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the think-tank. “One option is to try to buy time, to contain the escalation as much as possible in the hope that something might change in the US-Iran dynamic.”
A top aide to Emmanuel Macron, the French president, will visit Iran on Tuesday to discuss the crisis. The trip by Emmanuel Bonne, the French leader’s diplomatic adviser, comes after Mr Macron spoke for more than an hour by telephone at the weekend with Mr Rouhani.
The president’s office said Mr Macron was seeking the “necessary de-escalation” of tensions and had agreed to explore with his Iranian counterpart “the conditions for a resumption of dialogue between all parties”.
The statement echoed similar expressions of concern about the deal’s fate issued by the EU and Germany on Sunday.
The accord — which was signed by the US, France, Germany, the UK, China and Russia and brokered by the EU — offered Iran relief from many international sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
Iran launched its strategy of pre-announced breaches of the pact’s terms in May, on the first anniversary of US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the accord and reimpose sanctions as part of policy of piling “maximum pressure” on Tehran.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, said the Islamic republic was considering further moves in two months’ time, including enriching uranium to 20 per cent purity or more and adding centrifuges to raise enrichment capacity further. He added that Iran had no need for now for 20 per cent pure uranium.
EU foreign ministers are likely to discuss Iran at a regular meeting on July 15, although many diplomats expect their response to be cautious. The Europeans have the option to invoke a dispute resolution procedure in the deal over Iran’s breaches — a move that could end in the restoration of international sanctions and push the deal closer to collapse.
The crisis over the nuclear accord has added to tensions between Iran and the west, fuelled by attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, Iran’s shooting down of a US drone last month and last week’s seizure by British forces of a tanker off the coast of Gibraltar that was suspected to be transporting Iranian oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. The US blames Iran for the tanker attacks, which Tehran denies.