Iran says progress made at nuclear meeting but ‘still not enough’

Deputy FM says he’ll report back to Tehran for decision, but country will continue to reduce commitments to uranium caps unless ‘expectations are met’

In this April 9, 2018 file photo, released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani listens to explanations on new nuclear achievements at a ceremony to mark 'National Nuclear Day,' in Tehran, Iran. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)
In this April 9, 2018 file photo, released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani listens to explanations on new nuclear achievements at a ceremony to mark 'National Nuclear Day,' in Tehran, Iran. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)

VIENNA (AP) — A meeting of the remaining partners in the Iranian nuclear deal produced some progress but not enough to satisfy Tehran’s demands, a senior Iranian official said Friday, offering little prospect for now of the country backing away from a move to surpass a uranium stockpile threshold that could doom the agreement.

Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said after meeting with senior officials from Britain, Germany, France, China, Russia and the European Union that a complex barter-type system set up to keep trade with Iran afloat is now active. But he insisted that for the so-called INSTEX system to be useful, “Europeans need to buy oil from Iran, or to consider credit lines for this mechanism.”

Araghchi described the meeting in Vienna, a regular quarterly gathering of signatories to the 2015 accord, as positive and constructive. He said it was “one step forward” compared with previous sessions, “but it is still not enough, and it is still not meeting Iran’s expectations.”

The 2015 agreement was aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the accord last year and he has imposed new sanctions on Iran in hopes of forcing Tehran into negotiating a wider-ranging deal.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who is also a senior nuclear negotiator, speaks with media in his press conference in Tehran, Iran, on January 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran recently quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. It previously said it would surpass a 300-kilogram stockpile limit set by the accord by Thursday, but then said it was below the limit Wednesday and there would be no new assessment until “after the weekend.” It is currently a holiday weekend in Iran.

European countries are pressing for Iran to comply in full with the accord, though they have not specified what the consequences would be of failing to do so. But Iranian officials maintain that even if it surpasses the enrichment limit, it would not be breaching the deal, and say such a move could be reversed quickly.

The Europeans also have faced a July 7 deadline set by Tehran to offer long-promised relief from US sanctions, or Iran says it will also begin enriching its uranium closer to weapons-grade levels.

INSTEX was conceived in January but has taken months to activate. It would help ensure trade between Iran and Europe by allowing buyers and sellers to exchange money without relying on the usual cross-border financial transactions.

Senior EU diplomat Helga Schmid confirmed on Twitter that the system is “now operational, (with) first transactions being processed” and more EU member countries to join. She said that Friday’s discussions were constructive and added that “full and effective implementation of #IranDeal by all sides remains key.”

Araghchi said he will report back to Tehran, which will make further decisions. Of the 300-kilogram limit, he said that “the decision to reduce our commitments has already (been) made in Iran, and we continue on that process unless our expectations are met.”

Asked whether there would be a follow-up meeting, Araghchi said that delegates “decided to have a ministerial meeting very soon,” perhaps in the next few weeks, although a time and place have not yet been determined. Friday’s meeting was held at a lower level of senior foreign ministry officials.

Trump said on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan that “there’s no rush” to ease tensions with Iran.

“There’s absolutely no time pressure,” he added. “I think that in the end, hopefully, it’s going to work out. If it does, great. And if doesn’t, you’ll be hearing about it.”

Tensions have been rising in the Middle East. Citing unspecified Iranian threats, the US has sent an aircraft carrier to the region and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there.

General Amir Ali Hajizadeh (C), Iran’s Head of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division, looks at debris from a downed US drone reportedly recovered within Iran’s territorial waters and put on display by the Revolutionary Guard in the capital Tehran on June 21, 2019. (Meghdad Madadi/TASNIM NEWS / AFP)

The US has been worried about international shipping through the Strait of Hormuz since tankers were damaged in May and June in what Washington has blamed on limpet mines from Iran, although Tehran denies any involvement. Last week, Iran shot down a US Navy surveillance drone, saying it violated its territory; Washington said it was in international airspace.

Cornelius Adebahr, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Berlin, said there was a risk of “a big conflict.”

“There is so much space for miscalculations, for misperceptions and there is no direct communication between Iran and the US,” he said. During the Cold War, he noted, Washington and Moscow had a direct hotline for crises, but now “there is nothing comparable and that makes this all so dangerous.”

Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, speaks during a press conference in al-Kharj, south of the Saudi capital Riyadh on June 21, 2019 (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

On Thursday, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook met top European diplomats in Paris and said he wants them to get tougher on Iran, instead of clinging to the nuclear deal.

The US is trying to drum up support for an international naval force in the Persian Gulf, notably to protect shipping. On Friday, Hook met in London with the head of the International Maritime Organization, the UN shipping safety agency, to share intelligence on “Iran’s recent aggression in and around the Strait of Hormuz.”

Hook said that “we have put ourselves in a strictly defensive position but we are, we think, making strides to restore deterrence.”

He also stressed that “you can’t do business with the United States and Iran, and everyone has chosen the United States over Iran for a number of reasons.”

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