World

Europe weighs next move after Iran breaches nuclear deal's uranium enrichment limit

Bloomberg

European powers urged Iran to reverse its latest decision to breach the levels of uranium enrichment under the 2015 nuclear accord but stopped short of threatening sanctions.

The U.K. and the European Union said they were concerned about Iran’s move to abandon uranium enrichment restrictions. Both said they’re in contact with other parties to the accord regarding next steps.

Iran’s Sunday announcement kept the pressure on Europe to help ease the impact of crippling U.S. sanctions imposed after President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement a year ago. But while officials said more steps to scale back Iran’s commitment will be taken every 60 days, they left the door open for negotiations to salvage the deal.

“The fact that the Europeans haven’t yet managed to meet our demands doesn’t mean that diplomatic consultations have been closed,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said. “On the condition that sanctions are removed, there is no barrier to the presence of the Americans in the negotiations.”

Iran threatened 60 days ago to abandon some of its commitments under the deal if Europe didn’t meet a July 7 deadline to relieve sanctions that include penalties for buying Iranian oil. A week ago, Tehran exceeded the cap on its stockpile of low-grade uranium, and on Sunday, it said it will resume purifying uranium beyond the 3.67 percent allowed under the agreement, without saying how much closer it would get to weapons-grade levels.

“While the U.K. remains fully committed to the deal, Iran must immediately stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its obligations,” the British Foreign Office said in a statement. The European Union said it is “extremely concerned” at Iran’s announcement and “strongly” urged it to “stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its commitments” under the agreement.

Uranium must be enriched to 90 percent to build weapons, though lower levels would be considered significant. The International Atomic Energy Agency said its inspectors in Iran will report to headquarters as soon as they verify the development.

France, Germany and the U.K. have delivered a financial channel known as Instex that aims to protect some trade with Iran — initially only food and medicine — from the threat of U.S. penalties. But Iran wants a trade vehicle that can be used to buy oil.

European leaders have signaled they won’t rush to slap penalties on Iran, but they’ll find it increasingly hard to resist pressure from the Trump administration if Tehran abandons multiple commitments. On Saturday night, France and Iran agreed to work to resume nuclear talks by mid-July, presenting a potential diplomatic opening.

Iran’s latest expansion of its nuclear program “will lead to further isolation and sanctions,” U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said on Sunday on Twitter.

“Nations should restore the longstanding standard of no enrichment for Iran’s nuclear program,” Pompeo said. “Iran’s regime, armed with nuclear weapons, would pose an even greater danger to the world.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also called on world powers to impose “snapback sanctions” on Iran.

Trump, who says his campaign of “maximum pressure” is designed to bring a weakened Iran to the bargaining table, has already warned against accelerated uranium enrichment. The U.S. wants Iran to roll back its political influence in the Middle East and to re-negotiate some of the accord’s terms.

The slow slope of Iran’s escalation clearly shows that Tehran still doesn’t want to break the deal, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group research center. At the same time, breaching on enrichment is a risky proposition, he said.

“Iran won’t go back to the negotiating table empty handed,” Vaez said.

“The more it comes to the conclusion that it has no choice other than engaging the Trump administration, the likelier it is that Tehran would resuscitate its nuclear program to restore its leverage. That means that a new round of talks will have to pass through another perilous nuclear standoff.”