Russia has signalled its willingness to join an EU payments channel designed to circumvent US sanctions banning trade with Iran and has called on Brussels to expand the new mechanism to cover oil exports.

Moscow’s involvement in the channel, known as Instex, would mark a significant step forward in attempts by the EU and Russia to rescue a 2015 Iran nuclear deal that has been unravelling since the Trump administration abandoned it last year.

“Russia is interested in close co-ordination with the European Union on Instex,” the Russian foreign ministry told the Financial Times. “The more countries and continents involved, the more effective will the mechanism be as a whole.”

On Thursday, the Kremlin backed the foreign ministry. “We are tracking the information regarding this. If I’m not mistaken, there have already been statements from our side that, taking into account the first experience of using this system, when it is activated, we cannot rule out interaction in this regard,” Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told reporters.

“This is an important project. It is aimed at protecting the interests of European economic operators against the background of illegal attempts to restrict their activities by third countries,” he added.

Iran has expressed frustration that the remaining signatories to the nuclear deal have not done more to give it relief from economic sanctions reimposed by the US, particularly restrictions on its ability to export oil.

It has underlined its discontent by breaching limits agreed in the accord on its uranium enrichment processes.

The Russian foreign ministry said: “The full potential of Instex will only be able to be deployed if it will be open to the participation of countries which are not members of the European Union.”

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Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, has previously described Instex as “not sufficient”.

The landmark nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, lifted a series of punishing international sanctions on Iran in return for Tehran’s agreement to curb its nuclear programme.

Since they were reimposed by Washington, sanctions have devastated the Iranian economy, in part by halting a big portion of Iran’s oil exports, its most valuable commodity.

Russia said Instex was “a good tool in the implementation of projects . . . that the United States has strongly torpedoed” but called for it to be expanded to include crude oil.

“If the encouraging statements by the EU . . . will be backed up by concrete steps and practical advances, including in relation to the use of Instex for servicing trading in Iranian oil, it will help stabilise the difficult situation created around the JCPOA,” it said.

Russia has strengthened its ties with Iran in recent years as part of Moscow’s increased geopolitical importance in the Middle East, including its role of propping up the Assad regime in the war in Syria.

At a meeting with Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin vowed to continue developing trade ties with Tehran and said Moscow was committed to a project to expand the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran.

Efforts to rescue the nuclear deal have been a rare area of co-operation between Brussels and Moscow, whose relations have soured after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the attempted murder of a former Russian double agent in the UK and alleged attempts to meddle in EU elections.

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Since US president Donald Trump pulled out of the deal last May, its other signatories — Germany, France, UK, China and Russia — have scrambled to find ways to maintain trade with Iran. But they have been stymied by companies’ reluctance to risk Washington’s wrath.

Instex was launched in January but subsequently delayed by bureaucratic hurdles and the complications caused by the US sanctions. It only became operational last month and has been criticised by Tehran for having big limitations.

Just 10 EU states are members and the mechanism’s initial credit line of several million euros is a fraction of EU-Iran trade, which stood at more than €20bn annually before the US sanctions.

Brussels is interested in bringing Russia into Instex, two EU officials told the Financial Times, but they said that it would first seek to get the channel up and running with humanitarian aid trades before potentially expanding its scope or membership.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy head, said this week that the trade mechanism “has always been conceived to be open to third countries . . . and we are already seeing interest by some of them to participate in that”, although she did not identify them. “The issue of whether or not Instex will deal with oil is a discussion that is ongoing among the shareholders,” she added.

Iran wants Europe to buy its oil so that it can use the hard currency earnings to import basic commodities and medicines through Instex.

Moscow has previously said that it would look into ways to facilitate or finance Iranian oil exports if Instex was not launched or proved to be ineffective.

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The idea behind Instex was to set up a so-called mirror image transaction system that replaces potentially sanctionable international payments between Europe and Iran with payments that do not cross Iran’s borders.

Analysts say China, which has shown a willingness to defy US sanctions, has greater potential to hand Tehran an economic lifeline by continuing to purchase Iranian crude exports.

Additional reporting by Alex Barker in Brussels

Via Financial Times