BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Europe and Iran launched a united front on Tuesday to rescue the nuclear deal that US President Donald Trump gave up last week. Great Britain warned of regime change and Tehran expressed hope that the economic benefits of the agreement would be preserved.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met a meeting with his British, French and German counterparts on Tuesday in Brussels and held "good and constructive" talks with EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.
"We are on the right track to move forward … Whatever is decided should preserve and guarantee the rights of Iran … Our talks (with the E3) will continue over the next two weeks," he said and referred to Britain, France and Germany.
Many European diplomats privately doubt that the 2015 2015 treaty between Iran and six world powers can survive Trump's reintroduction of US sanctions, but European powers will say they are sticking to the 2015 pact and Iran sanctions grant them an end to their nuclear ambitions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has called on the European Union to oppose the US "illegal and illogical" measures. Tehran can only stay in the agreement if it fully benefits from it.
The agreement lifted Iran's international sanctions in 2016 when Tehran shut down its capacity under the strict supervision of the US nuclear alert to store enriched uranium for a potential nuclear bomb.
Trump condemned the agreement made under his predecessor Barack Obama as a "terrible, one-sided deal that should never have been made", as it did not cover the Iranian missile program or its role in Middle East conflicts.
Proponents of the agreement say it is crucial to forestall a nuclear Iran and prevent another war in the Middle East.
Mogherini, the EU's highest diplomat in Vienna in July 2015, led the last 12-year negotiations on Iran's accession, saying: "We will all save together."
Zarif said the talks would go on for the next two weeks and EU diplomats said they needed some time to understand the US position.
"One of the questions we need to ask the Americans is whether their ultimate goal is to persuade the Iranians to abandon their nuclear program or get rid of the regime," a senior French official said, conceding that Paris was affected by the ideological shift in Washington since John Bolton was named US National Security Advisor.
These comments were repeated by Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who told Parliament that a regime change in Iran is not a policy that Britain should pursue.
French diplomats said they also wanted to evaluate Iran's intentions to comply with the agreement, but also to see how open it was to serious talks in other Western affairs.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted a more comprehensive solution after the four-pronged US withdrawal: limiting Iran's nuclear program in the short and long term, restricting its ballistic missile program, and curbing Western destabilization in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.
European diplomats admitted that EU support, however sincere, was being risked after Trump imposed a series of far-reaching sanctions on the Islamic Republic last week that would hit European companies, who invest in Iran.
The EU, which has signed the nuclear agreement with Iran with Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia, China and the US, has taken some steps to protect European business in Iran.
They include retaliatory sanctions that allow the European Investment Bank to invest directly in Iran and to coordinate euro-denominated credit lines with European governments. In the past, the European Union has also filed complaints with the World Trade Organization.
But the reach of the US financial system, the dominance of the US dollar, Trump's efforts to weaken the WTO, and the presence of European companies in the US are weakening all possible EU action.
"It will be very difficult for us to preserve the economic benefits of the Iran Agreement," said a senior European diplomat. "We will try to keep our side of the agreement."
Following Tuesday's evening talks in Brussels, all 28 EU leaders will discuss their next steps on Wednesday in Sofia, but no decisions are expected.
They could consider retaliatory sanctions by using the so-called EU blocking law, which prevents an EU company from complying with US sanctions and does not recognize court sentences enforcing American penalties.
But the measures were never applied and could be difficult to enforce, while EU companies in the United States may still face seizures, fines and possibly criminal charges.
"Let's not fool ourselves that we can do dozens of things," said a second European diplomat. "We have not much to threaten the Americans, there is not much optimism."
Additional coverage by John Irish and Gabriela Baczynska, edited by Richard Balmforth, William Maclean