Iran said some progress had been made at a meeting with world powers on its nuclear accord – but probably “still not enough” to keep the landmark 2015 deal alive.
“It was a step forward, but it is still not enough and not meeting Iran’s expectations,” said Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, after the talks on Friday. “I don’t think the progress made today will be enough to stop our process – but the decision will be made in Tehran.”
Tehran has threatened to withdraw from key commitments in the deal, probably on 7 July, a move that might force European powers to reluctantly join the US and quit the deal signed in 2015.
Araghchi said: “The decision to reduce our commitments has already been made in Iran and we continue on that process unless our expectations are met.”
But he also said a ministerial-level meeting would be held soon, probably giving Europe a further chance to save the deal from imminent collapse.
Such a collapse would probably lead the EU to join the US in imposing sanctions, which might bring a military response by Iran as it tries to find levers to force the west to loosen the vice on its economy.
At the talks, the three European powers – France, Germany and the UK – tried to assuage Iranian doubts that Europe was sticking to its side of the 2015 bargain by pressing ahead with the long-planned mechanism to facilitate trade between Iran and Europe without being hit by US sanctions.
The lead EU negotiator, Helga Schmid, hailed the discussions as constructive and said the first transactions had been completed through the mechanism, known as Instex.
The EU was also due to supply a modest €3m (£2.7m) credit line to kickstart the mechanism as a signal of good intent.
However, Araghchi said: “For Instex to be useful for Iran, Europeans need to buy oil or consider credit lines for this mechanism, otherwise Instex is not like they or us expect.”
The EU has always said Instex will be confined to easing trade in humanitarian goods, such as food and medicine – a form of trading the White House says is not subject to its sanctions regime.
Iran had billed the Vienna meeting as the last chance to salvage the deal.
The Chinese envoy, Fu Cong, said Beijing rejected the US policy of unilateral sanctions, suggesting China may be willing to defy the US threat.
But the US special representative on Iran, Brian Hook, insisted the US would put sanctions on all Iranian oil exports. “We will sanction any illicit purchases of Iranian crude oil. There are right now no oil waivers in place,” he said.
Hook said the US economic grip on Iran was intended to force Tehran to renegotiate the original nuclear deal, turning it into a binding international treaty that also covers wider issues including Iran’s ballistic missile programme, its regional interference and its treatment of dual national prisoners.
He also promised the US would go ahead with plans to impose sanctions on Iran’s chief diplomat, Javad Zarif. He said Iran’s goal was to bring the Middle East under the thrall of Tehran’s “Marxist theocratic” ideology.
Hook was in London to urge the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN body, to back his plan for a UN-endorsed maritime protection force, modelled on an established UN anti-piracy force off the coast of Somalia.
He said Iran, by its threats to Gulf shipping, was “courting a financial and environment disaster”, and was breaching all maritime rules by turning off its ship collision avoidance transponders in an attempt to smuggle oil out of Iran and avoid being tracked by the US.
“An outlaw regime is violating basic maritime law and now represents a maritime threat across the Gulf,” Hook said after meeting the IMO secretary general, Kitack Lim.
Hook went further than before by accusing Iran of planning to gain a stranglehold on all international oil-related shipping by controlling not just the Gulf of Oman, off the Iranian coast, but also the Red Sea shipping lanes through the Bab al-Mandab strait off Yemen that take oil into the Arabian Sea and on to Asia.
His claim shows the extent to which the US regards defeat of the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen as integral to the wider defeat of Iran.
“If we do not prevent Iranians from laying down deep roots in Yemen, they will be in a position to threaten to close the strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab,” Hook said.
“They are seeking to do in Yemen what they succeeded to do in Lebanon. They would like to ‘Lebanonise’ Yemen and become a power broker on the Saudi southern border and to be in a position to harass the Emiratis and Saudis, and to be another threat in their threat matrix to freedom of navigation. We are pushing back on Iran’s long game in Yemen.”
The sanctions, hailed by Hook as unprecedented, have so far cut Iranian oil exports to 400,000 barrels a day, levels that have put the Iranian government deep into debt.
“This is a clerical regime that wants to remake the Middle East in its image – and that would deeply destabilise the Middle East to have regimes following the same Marxist theocratic regime,” Hook said.
Describing the state of tension in the region, he said Iran’s goal “is to scare the global oil market to keep the price up and to keep the world on edge”.