European powers warn Iran over plan to escalate nuclear activities

European powers have warned Iran that its plans to expand its atomic energy programme risk scuppering efforts to revive a landmark international nuclear deal after US president Donald Trump leaves office. 

The so-called “E3” of Germany, France and the UK condemned proposals from authorities in Tehran to boost uranium enrichment capacity, “substantially expand” its nuclear programme and limit UN inspectors’ access.

The E3 statement on Monday highlights the hurdles to restoring the 2015 nuclear accord ditched by Mr Trump in 2018, even though president-elect Joe Biden has said the US will rejoin if Iran meets certain conditions.

 “If Iran is serious about preserving a space for diplomacy, it must not implement these steps,” the E3 said in a statement on Monday on the agreement, which is known as the JCPOA and is also signed by Russia and China.

“Such a move would jeopardise our shared efforts to preserve the JCPoA and risks compromising the important opportunity for a return to diplomacy with the incoming US administration,” the statement continued.

A nuclear fuel enrichment plant in Natanz, where Iran has said it plans to install more advanced centrifuges © Henghameh Fahimi/AFP/Getty

The E3 said Iran’s recent disclosure to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency that it intended to install more advanced centrifuges at a nuclear fuel enrichment plant in Natanz was “contrary to the JCPOA and deeply worrying”.

The European countries also expressed “great concern” at a law passed by the Iranian parliament in the wake of the assassination of its top nuclear scientist that would, if implemented, “substantially expand Iran’s nuclear programme and limit IAEA monitoring access”. 

“The measures would be incompatible with the JCPOA and Iran’s wider nuclear commitments,” the E3 said. 

Iran has since last year made an escalating series of breaches of the nuclear deal in retaliation for the US decision to exit the accord and impose tough sanctions on Tehran. Iran, which has always denied having a nuclear weapons programme, has called on Washington to resume compliance with the agreement without preconditions.

Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, said it was “important for Iran to return to its obligations under this deal — that is currently not the case”.

But he also stressed that the agreement would have to be “expanded” to include “Iran’s regional role, its ballistic missile programme”.

“The fact that Joe Biden has publicly said he’s willing to restart talks on these issues, we have to take advantage of that,” he told German radio. “And so it would make the world safer if the US returns to the nuclear deal with Iran.”

Mr Biden told the New York Times last week that — in consultation with allies and partners — the US was going to “engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to broaden the nuclear deal”. These would aim to “tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program”. 

The western calls for new elements to be added to the nuclear deal set up a potential flashpoint with Iran. Tehran has resisted past efforts to widen the accord to cover its ballistic missile programme and regional activities.

Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, said on Monday that “Iran will neither compromise nor negotiate over its national security issues” and said Europe had also failed to meet some of its commitments under the deal. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said last week that Iran would “not renegotiate a deal, which we’ve negotiated” and accused western states of “malign behaviour” by selling weapons to Gulf states.

A further complication is that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long called for Middle East regional states to be involved in any future negotiations to ensure their concerns are addressed. 

The two Gulf powers, which backed Mr Trump’s decision to abandon the accord, were angered that they were excluded from the negotiations that led to the 2015 accord. 

They argue that Tehran’s missile programme and its backing of regional militias present an immediate and direct threat to the region and should be incorporated into any future negotiations. 

Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

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