The nuclear deal signed last year between world powers and Iran is “vitally important for regional security,” British Prime Minister Theresa May told a summit of Gulf nations on Wednesday, adding that she remained “clear-eyed about the threat that Iran poses.”
May’s commitment to the agreement puts her on a potential collision course with US President-elect Donald Trump, who has promised to tear up and/or stringently enforce the nuclear deal once in office.
The agreement, signed in Vienna in July 2015 and in force since January 2016, was the signature diplomatic breakthrough of President Barack Obama’s second term. It calls on Tehran to curb its nuclear program, including its ability to enrich uranium, in exchange for sanctions relief from the US and other nations. Britain was a party to the agreement.
Trump has branded the agreement under which it was implemented — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the “worst deal ever negotiated.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains one of the agreement’s fiercest foes, saying it paves Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal.
May told the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council in Bahrain that Britain will help Gulf states “push back” against aggressive regional actions by Iran, in a televised address.
May reaffirmed British support for traditional allies in the region, while also seeking to strengthen post-Brexit trade.
“I want to assure you that I am clear-eyed about the threat that Iran poses to the Gulf and to the wider Middle East,” she told leaders of the GCC, which brings together Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
“We secured a deal which has neutralized the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons for over a decade,” she said. “It has already seen Iran remove 13,000 centrifuges together with associated infrastructure and eliminate its stock of 20 per cent enriched uranium.
“That was vitally important for regional security. But we must also work together to push back against Iran’s aggressive regional actions, whether in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria or in the Gulf itself.”
The mainly Sunni Arab Gulf monarchies and Shiite Iran are bitter regional rivals, at odds over a range of issues including the wars in Syria and Yemen.
Iran’s alleged “interference” in the region is a central preoccupation of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council whose most powerful member is Saudi Arabia.
GCC countries are concerned about Iran’s growing influence in the region, especially after last year’s nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers took a step towards ending its international isolation.
Britain and Iran have reopened their embassies in each other’s countries and exchanged ambassadors. Direct British Airways flights between London and Tehran also have resumed after the nuclear accord.
The nuclear agreement “removes the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program based on dates certain, rather than on changes in Iran’s aggressive behavior, including its support for terrorism around the world,” a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel in July. “The deal doesn’t solve the Iranian nuclear problem, but rather delays and intensifies it.”
When the deal was signed last summer between Iran and world powers, Avigdor Liberman, the head of the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu party and the current defense minister, compared it to the 1938 Munich Agreement between European powers and Nazi Germany, calling the deal with Tehran “total capitulation to unrestrained terrorism and violence in the international arena.”
In addition to Trump’s opposition to the deal, the US Senate last week voted to renew longstanding sanctions linked to Iran’s ballistic missile tests and human rights record. These pre-date the controversy around Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but pose another possible stumbling block for the atomic deal.
Washington says these 10-year sanctions have nothing to do with the nuclear agreement, but Iran says the continuing restrictions breach its spirit, particularly since they have discouraged international banks from returning to the country.
“We will not allow any party to unilaterally undertake any actions that are in violation of the nuclear agreement,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.
Associated Press and AFP contributed to this report.