British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt. Picture: AFP/ DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS
British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt. Picture: AFP/ DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS

Brussels — Britain says there is a “small window” of time to save the Iran nuclear deal, as Tehran signalled it would ramp up its nuclear programme — seen by the West as a cover for making atomic bombs — if Europe failed to do more to salvage the pact. 

US-Iranian tensions have worsened since President Donald Trump decided in 2018 to abandon the nuclear deal under which Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear programme in return for relief from economic sanctions crippling its economy.

“Iran is still a good year away from developing a nuclear bomb. There is still some closing, but small window to keep the deal alive,” foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters on arrival for a foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels.

The Brussels gathering will seek to flesh out how to convince Iran and the US to reduce tensions and start a dialogue amid fears that the 2015 deal is close to collapse.

In reaction to the reimposition of tough US sanctions, which have notably targeted Iran’s main oil revenue stream, Tehran has cut some of its nuclear commitments under the deal, leading the European parties to the pact — France, Britain and Germany — to warn it about not fully complying with the terms.

When asked whether European powers would seek to penalise Iran for breaking parts of its nuclear commitments, Hunt said they would seek a meeting of the parties to deal with it.

“We will and there’s something called a joint commission, which is the mechanism set up in the deal which is what happens when one side thinks the other side has breached it, that will happen very soon,” he said.

Iran denies having sought a nuclear weapon.

In Tehran, Iran’s nuclear agency said Iran would return to the situation before the nuclear deal unless European countries fulfilled their obligations.

‘Give diplomacy a chance’

“These actions are not taken out of stubbornness but to give diplomacy a chance so the other side comes on its own and fulfils its duties,” agency spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi said.

“And if the Europeans and America don’t want to fulfil their commitments we will create a balance in this deal by reducing commitments and return the situation to four years ago.”

Iran says the European countries must do more to guarantee it the economic benefits it was meant to receive in return for curbs to its nuclear programme under the deal.

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Europe had to stay united in trying to save the deal and Tehran should reverse its decision not to comply with parts of it.

“For us it’s important now to remain in dialogue and to contribute to de-escalation,” Germany’s Europe minister Michael Roth said echoing Le Drian.

France, Germany and Britain have sought to defuse the tensions, which culminated in a plan for US air strikes on Iran in June that Trump called off at the last minute.

French President Emmanuel Macron dispatched his top diplomat to Tehran last week to offer suggestions on how to freeze the current status quo to gain some time.

Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto, whose country is holding the EU Council presidency, said there would be a strong message for Iran. “Iran should stick to its commitments on the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. We don’t accept the latest news that they are exceeding the limits of enriched materials,” he said.

The Europeans are trying to set up their Instex mechanism, a conduit for barter-based trade with Iran, but an equivalent Iranian system has yet to start. Should the mechanism go ahead it would initially only deal in products such as pharmaceuticals and foods, which are not subject to US sanctions.

Diplomats have that in any case they fear US blowback, while Iran has repeatedly said Instex must include oil sales or provide substantial credit facilities for it to be beneficial.

“We will do what we can to guarantee that there is no economic embargo against Iran and that European companies can continue working there,” Josep Borrell, Spain’s foreign minister and EU foreign chief nominee told reporters.

“It’s very difficult because US laws applied in an extraterritorial manner, in a way that we don’t recognise, make it difficult,” he said, adding that Spain would join the Instex mechanism.

Iran President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday reiterated Tehran’s stance that it would be ready to negotiate if the US lifted sanctions and returned to the nuclear deal. Trump has shown no sign of backing down for now.

“The deal is on the brink,” said a European diplomat.