European powers call on Iran to halt nuke deal breach, but balk at sanctions

Germany, UK and France react hesitantly to Tehran announcement that says it will break limits on uranium enrichment after Netanyahu urges swift action to combat ‘dangerous steps’

British Prime Minister Theresa May, center, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron, left, meet on the sidelines of an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels on March 22, 2018. (Francois Lenoir, Pool Photo via AP)
British Prime Minister Theresa May, center, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron, left, meet on the sidelines of an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels on March 22, 2018. (Francois Lenoir, Pool Photo via AP)

European powers urged Iran to stick to its nuclear commitments Sunday after Tehran announced it would ramp up uranium enrichment levels, but stopped short of threatening to reimpose sanctions lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal.

Germany, the United Kingdom and the EU urged Iran to walk back its intentions to begin enriching uranium to higher levels than allowed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, while France said new sanctions were not on the table, despite a call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to swiftly reimpose the measures.

“While the UK 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, adding that it was coordinating a response with other nations.

Germany said it was “extremely concerned” about Iran’s announcement, but was waiting for further information from the UN atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The German Foreign Office called for Iran “to stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its commitments”  and said it was in contact with remaining parties to the deal regarding the next steps to try keep Iran within its terms.

The IAEA said it was aware of Iran’s threats, but was waiting for its inspectors in Iran to report to its Vienna headquarters “as soon as they verify the announced development.”

It did not elaborate.

Iranian officials announced on Sunday that the country was ramping up the level of uranium enrichment beyond the 3.67% permitted under the deal. Earlier this month, Iran increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium beyond the cap set by the deal.

Iran’s moves have come in response to sweeping US sanctions, imposed after US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal a year ago.

The European Union said it was discussing a possible emergency meeting over how to respond to Iran’s moves, including a possible joint commission.

EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said Sunday that the bloc is “extremely concerned” about Iran’s decision.

IAEA inspectors at Iran’s nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane)

Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said Paris would not seek to trigger the nuclear deal’s so-called dispute resolution mechanism, which sets off a series of negotiations that could end with reimposed UN sanctions on Iran within 65 days.

“It’s not an option at this moment,” a source in Macron’s office told Reuters. However, he also condemned the decision, which he said was a breach of the 2015 deal.

French President Emmanuel Macron during a media conference at the end of an EU summit in Brussels on June 21, 2019. (AP/Riccardo Pareggiani)

Macron said Saturday he was trying to find a way by July 15 to resume dialogue between Iran and Western partners. Macron’s office said in a statement that the French leader spoke for more than an hour Saturday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani amid a standoff between Tehran and the US.

It is not yet clear how far the Islamic Republic will boost enrichment, but a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hinted on Friday it could reach five percent.

Spokesperson Behrooz Kamalvandi said Sunday that Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization was fully ready to enrich uranium “at any amount and at any level” if ordered to do so.

The 3.67 percent enrichment limit set in the agreement is sufficient for power generation but far below the more than 90 percent level required for a nuclear warhead.

However, experts warn higher enrichment and a growing stockpile narrows the one-year window Iran would need to have enough material for an atomic bomb, something Iran denies it wants but the deal prevented.

The moves by Iran are intended to press Europe into finding any effective way around US sanctions that block Tehran’s oil sales abroad and target its top officials.

At the same time, Netanyahu lobbied Europe Sunday to quickly put sanctions back in place in response to Iran’s “dangerous” flouting of the nuclear deal.

“This is a very dangerous step and I am urging my friends, the leaders of France, Britain, Germany: You signed this deal, and you said the moment this step would be taken, there would be harsh sanctions… Where are you?” said Netanyahu at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, listens to his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif prior to a meeting in Tehran, Iran, November 24, 2015. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Accusing Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons, the prime minister compared Tehran’s moves to the Nazi occupation of the Rhineland in 1936.

“I discussed this morning…  how World War II began in Europe. It began when Nazi Germany took one small step, reentering the Rhineland. It was a small step, no one said anything and no one did anything. The next step was the Anschluss… and the step after that was the entry into Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. The rest is known,” Netanyahu said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on July 7, 2019. (ABIR SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

The 2015 deal was reached between Iran and six world powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, the United States and Russia — and saw Tehran agree to drastically scale down its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Washington began reimposing sanctions in August 2018 and has targeted crucial sectors including oil exports and the banking system, fueling a deep recession.

read more: