European powers, US warn Iran against 'dangerous' inspections limit

·4-min read

Following a meeting hosted by France, European powers and the US on Thursday warned Iran it would be "dangerous" to limit UN nuclear agency inspections and asked Tehran to return to full compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal.

Britain, France, Germany and the US said after talks based in Paris that they were "united in underlining the dangerous nature of a decision to limit IAEA access" ahead of a February 21 deadline set by the Iranian parliament.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian hosted his German and British counterparts in Paris, with America's new top diplomat Antony Blinken joining via videoconference. The three European countries, known as the E3, along with the US are signatories to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Iran has set a deadline of next week for Biden to begin reversing sanctions imposed by Trump, or it will take the biggest step yet to breach the 2015 deal – banning short-notice inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"Regarding Iran, the E3 and the United States expressed their shared fundamental security interest in upholding the nuclear non-proliferation regime and ensuring that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon," the ministers said in a joint statement after the meeting.

Their statement urged "Iran to consider the consequences of such grave action, particularly at this time of renewed diplomatic opportunity," adding that they all shared the aim of Iran returning to "full compliance" with the accord.

Analysts say only a small window of opportunity remains to save the landmark deal, which received a near-fatal blow when former US president Donald Trump walked out of the accord in 2018.

The administration of Joe Biden has said it is prepared to rejoin the deal and start lifting sanctions if Iran returns to full compliance, a precondition disputed by Tehran.

Iran wants sanctions lifted

Reporting from the Iranian capital, Tehran, earlier Thursday, FRANCE 24’s Reza Sayah said Iran has made its position on re-entering the deal clear. “They want Washington to lift the sanctions – if that happens they say they will come back to the deal,” he explained.

“From Tehran’s point of view as they’re watching what’s happening in Paris today, they want the European signatories to the deal and Washington to get together and take a substantial and significant step towards restoring this deal and towards lifting the snactions that were imposed by Washington during the Trump’s administration’s 'maximum pressure' campaign,” said Sayah.

“Iran believes their position is reasonable. Remember the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018. Iran waited an entire year to see if the European signatories to the deal could salvage it. When that didn’t happen, in 2019, that’s when Iran started step-by-step scaling back some of its commitments,” he added.

'IAEA chief to travel to Iran'

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi is to travel to Tehran on Saturday for talks with the Iranian authorities to find a solution for continuing inspections in the country, the agency said.

It warned that the step threatened by Tehran would have "a serious impact on the IAEA's verification and monitoring activities in the country".

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Iran should provide "full and timely cooperation" with the IAEA.

"Iran should reverse the steps and refrain from taking others that would impact the IAEA assurances on which not only the United States, not only our allies and partners in the region, but the entire world relies," he said, adding that Blinken saw an "important role" for the EU.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in Vienna in 2015, was based on Iran providing safeguards that it would not make an atomic bomb, in exchange for a gradual easing of international sanctions.

But Iran has stepped up its nuclear work in violation of the accord after US sanctions were reimposed as part of Trump's "maximum pressure" policy to weaken the Iranian regime.

The UN nuclear watchdog said last week that Iran had started producing uranium metal in a new violation of the accord, prompting the European powers to warn that Tehran was "undermining the opportunity for renewed diplomacy".

'The time for positive signals'

In her talks with Rouhani, Merkel said that "now was the time for positive signals that create trust and increase the chances of a diplomatic solution".

However, the Iranian presidency said Rouhani in the call "criticised Europe's performance" on its JCPOA commitments after the US withdrawal.

While Iran's policy is ultimately determined by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian presidential elections in June add another time pressure factor.

Rouhani – a key advocate of nuclear diplomacy with global powers – is set to step down after serving the maximum two consecutive terms, and a more hardline figure is possibly in line to replace him.

"There is a short window of time to limit the damage that could ensue from Iran's next steps, for example by reducing the impact of such moves on the quality of inspections by international monitors," Geranmayeh said.

She said Washington should move in political and practical terms to show Iran that the Biden administration "is distancing itself from Trump-era maximum pressure".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)