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Iran and Europe push to save nuclear deal

Major powers scrambled to salvage Iran's 2015 nuclear deal in the wake of the U.S. decision to withdraw and reimpose sanctions on the Mideast power.

VIENNA (AN) — Major powers scrambled on Sunday to salvage Iran's 2015 nuclear deal in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from it and reimpose sanctions on the Mideast regional power.

At a meeting in Vienna, the nuclear deal was reaffirmed by diplomats from Iran and four permanent U.N. Security Council members — Britain, China, France and Russia — plus Germany and the European Union.

“The atmosphere was constructive and the discussions were good,” Iran's deputy foreign minister, Seyed Abbas Araghchi, said after the Sunday meeting ended, adding that all parties other than the United States — the other permanent, veto-wielding member of the Security Council — are still “determined to save this deal."

The Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal a year ago while assuring allies it was making the world a safer place. The United States began reimposing industrial and financial sanctions on Iran in August 2018, followed by bans on its oil exports and banking in November, undercutting years of complex diplomacy during the Obama administration.

That pressured European countries — which stopped buying oil from the Islamic Republic in mid-2018 due to the U.S. sanctions — to keep the deal afloat. Iran's biggest European trading partners are Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, and Greece.

Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, the deal requires Iran to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for lifting United Nations-brokered international sanctions. In May, Tehran responded to the U.S. withdrawal by announcing plans to resume enriching uranium at higher levels if other world powers would not accept new terms under the JCPOA.

At the start of this month, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran breached a stockpile limit for low-level enriched uranium under the deal.

The JCPOA limits Iran to enriching uranium to 3.67%, enough for a commercial nuclear power plant. Weapons grade uranium must be enriched to around 90%. Iran previously enriched uranium to 20%, which cuts in half the time it takes to get to 90%.

Agreement to hold more talks

Europeans have been urging Iran to restore full compliance with the deal. Iran has been pressuring for offsets to sanctions that Trump reimposed and for broader trade relations, particularly with China and the E.U.

The meeting, chaired by E.U. officials at the request of Britain, France, Germany and the Islamic Republic, "was held in order to discuss the need regarding the full and effective implementation of the JCPOA in all its aspects," the E.U. said.

"Participants reaffirmed their continued commitment to preserving the JCPOA," it said. "They recalled that both nuclear commitments and sanctions-lifting are essential parts of the agreement."

Those at the meeting also agreed to continue talks at a ministerial level in the near future. Complicating the diplomacy, however, were Iran's aggressive actions against ships navigating the Persian Gulf — and the U.S. response to expand its military presence in the region.

Iran downed a U.S. drone and impounded a British-flagged ship in the Strait of Hormuz days after British authorities, citing violations of E.U. sanctions, detained an Iranian oil tanker with 2 million barrels of crude oil off the coast of Gibraltar.

Araghchi linked the tanker dispute to the talks over the nuclear deal. "Countries party to the JCPOA must not create any obstacles in the way of Iran exporting its oil," he said.

The head of the Chinese delegation said all parties wanted to save the deal and opposed the Trump administration's decision to withdraw and reimpose sanctions on Tehran.

"First, all sides have expressed their commitment to safeguard the JCPOA and to continue to implement the JCPOA in an objective manner, and a balanced manner," Fu Cong, director general of the China foreign ministry's arms control department, told a news conference.

"The second point I take away from the meeting is that all sides have expressed their strong opposition against the U.S. unilateral imposition of sanctions, especially the extraterritorial application of the sanctions," he said, "and they also expressed support and appreciation of China's efforts to implement the JCPOA, in particular China's effort to maintain normal trade and oil relations with Iran."