Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Picture: AFP/ATTA KENARE
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Picture: AFP/ATTA KENARE

London — Iran announced on Wednesday it was scaling back curbs to its nuclear programme, announcing steps that stop short of violating its 2015 deal with world powers for now, but threatening more action if countries did not shield it from US sanctions.

Hours later, the US said it was not finished imposing sanctions on Iran and planned more "very soon".

A year to the day after Washington pulled out of the nuclear deal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced changes that experts said seemed tailored to ensure Tehran avoids triggering the deal's mechanism to punish it for violations, at least for now.

"For now, nothing changes, but this could be a ticking time bomb," a European diplomat said.

The main new measure that takes effect now would have limited practical impact: a halt to sales of enriched uranium and heavy water to other countries.

The deal allows such sales so Iran can keep reducing its stockpiles below maximum thresholds, but Washington already effectively barred the sales with a sanctions move last week. For now, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is still well below the deal’s cap and heavy water is less sensitive.

Rouhani also threatened that in 60 days' time, Iran would resume enrichment of uranium beyond the low purity — suitable for civilian nuclear power generation — allowed under the deal, unless the five other powers signed up to it found a way to protect Iran's oil and banking industries from US sanctions.

"If the five countries came to the negotiating table and we reached an agreement, and if they could protect our interests in the oil and banking sectors, we will go back to square one," Rouhani said in a televised address.

"The Iranian people and the world should know that today is not the end of the JCPOA," he said, using the acronym for the nuclear deal. "These are actions in line with the JCPOA."

The 2015 accord was signed between Iran, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the US, before US President Donald Trump took office. Iran agreed to limits on its disputed nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions.

Washington's European allies opposed Trump's decision to pull out and have tried, so far in vain, to find ways to blunt the economic effect of new US sanctions, which include an all-out effort to block Iran's oil exports to starve its economy.

France and Germany

France and Germany both said they wanted to keep the nuclear deal alive, and warned Iran not to violate it.

"Our position remains that we want to stick by the agreement, especially to prevent Iran from gaining possession of a nuclear weapon," German foreign minister Heiko Maas said, stressing the pact was crucial for European security.

Russia and Iran both blamed the US for what they portrayed as Tehran's forced decision to suspend some pledges under the nuclear deal, while putting the onus on European powers to guarantee sanctions relief for Iran.

The Kremlin accused Washington of provoking Iran's move. Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin had predicted consequences from the "unthought-out steps" of US withdrawal. "Now we are seeing those consequences."

China said the deal should continue to be implemented and called on all sides to exercise restraint and pursue dialogue.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama, is flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran's ballistic missile programme and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.

Tim Morrison, a special assistant to Trump and senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefence, told a conference that Washington was not "done" with imposing sanctions on Iran. "Expect more sanctions soon. Very soon."

With Ben Blanchard, Jonathan Landay, Dan Williams, Sophie Louet, Francois Murphy and Michelle Martin