Signaling increased alarm over Iran’s breaches of the 2015 nuclear agreement, the deal’s European members took a step on Tuesday that could lead to its possible collapse.
In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain, plus the top foreign policy official of the European Union, expressed “deep concern that Iran is pursuing activities inconsistent with its commitments” under the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The statement by the European members was their strongest response yet to at least two Iranian violations of the agreement in recent days: exceeding the stockpile of uranium it is allowed to keep, and raising the enrichment level of some of that stockpile above the purity required for civilian use.
They exhorted Iran to return to full compliance “without delay” and said that a joint commission for resolving disputes under the accord “should be convened urgently” to address the problem.
The convening of a joint commission amounted to a warning that the Europeans are moving closer to a formal complaint against Iran. The complaint, if unresolved, could lead to the reimposition of international sanctions lifted by the accord. That outcome would likely doom the deal.
The three European powers are the remaining Western participants in the nuclear agreement. Iran, China and Russia are the others.
The Trump administration abandoned the agreement last year and the threat to the accord has been intensifying ever since. President Donald Trump reimposed onerous sanctions on Iran, including steps that have severely reduced sales of Iranian oil, the country’s main export.
A test of sentiment toward the United States could come Wednesday when the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which polices Iranian compliance with the agreement, will convene in a special session at the request of the Americans to discuss Iran’s breaches.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have particularly escalated in the past few weeks, raising the possibility of a military conflict. The top U.S. military officer, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said Tuesday that the United States is proceeding with plans to assemble a coalition of nations aimed at deterring what he called Iranian threats to shipping in the Persian Gulf area.
The nuclear accord, negotiated by the Obama administration, was designed to give Iran economic relief in return for Iran’s verifiable pledges to limit nuclear activities to peaceful efforts, like power generation.
Trump has called the agreement a disaster, asserting it would merely postpone the date when Iran would have the capacity to make atomic bombs. Iran has consistently denied it wants such weapons.
All remaining participants in the accord have expressed the desire to preserve it despite the American withdrawal. France sent an emissary to Iran on Tuesday aimed at de-escalating the tensions.
Iran has said it was compelled to breach some of the accord’s limits because in Iran’s view, the United States had violated the accord by abandoning it and reimposing sanctions. Iran also says the Europeans have failed to honor the accord’s provisions for providing economic benefits, despite the creation of a bartering mechanism, known as Instex, meant to bypass American penalties for trading with Iran.
The Iranians have threatened further breaches in September and every 60 days afterward.
European diplomats and analysts said the convening of the dispute resolution commission would not in itself spell the demise of the agreement. But it was a step the Europeans had been reluctant to take.
“They’re losing patience,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based political risk consultancy. “So far, they are exclusively focused on pushing Iran back to compliance, but they have very little leverage to do so. I doubt Iran will be returning to the nuclear deal’s limits this year, if not longer.”
The European warning came as Iran showed no inclination to soften its position. On the contrary, Iranian officials expressed increased defiance.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter that he believed Trump had been duped into scrapping the nuclear agreement at the urging of Israel and his hawkish aides, notably John Bolton, the national security adviser, based on the “delusion” that Iran could be forced to stop all uranium enrichment.
The Iranians also warned Britain about its seizure of an Iranian supertanker last week in the Strait of Gibraltar, calling the move “maritime piracy” in a Foreign Ministry meeting Tuesday with Britain’s ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, according to an account by Iran’s PressTV news service.
PressTV also said Iran’s top military commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Baqeri, punctuated the warning with a threat that the seizure “will not go unanswered and Tehran will give a response to the contemptible move at an appropriate time and place when necessary.”