Iran, European partners meet with nuclear accord threatened

Brian Hook , the U.S. special envoy for Iran, gestures during an interview in Paris, Thursday, June 27, 2019. Brian Hook is meeting with top French, German and British diplomats in Paris for talks on the Persian Gulf crisis at a time when European powers are trying to save the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. (AP Photo/Nicolas Garriga)
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. As Iran prepares to break through limits set by its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, each step narrows the time its leaders would need to have enough highly enriched uranium for an atomic bomb -- if they chose to build one. By Thursday, June 27, 2019, Iran says it will have over 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium in its possession, which would mean it had broken out of the atomic accord. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)
President Donald Trump meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Friday, June 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani attends a meeting with the Health Ministry officials, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, June 25, 2019. Iran on Tuesday sharply criticized new U.S. sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic's supreme leader and other top officials, saying the measures spell the "permanent closure" for diplomacy between the two nations. For his part, Iran's president described the White House as "afflicted by mental retardation." (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

VIENNA — Senior officials from Iran and the remaining signatories to its 2015 nuclear deal met Friday with the future of the accord under threat as Tehran was poised to surpass a uranium stockpile threshold.

At the heart of the meeting is Iran's desire for Europe to deliver on promises of financial relief from U.S. sanctions that are crippling the country's economy. Iran insists it wants to save the agreement and has urged the Europeans to start buying Iranian oil or give Iran a credit line to keep the accord alive.

There was no comment from participants who arrived at a Vienna hotel to take part in the regular quarterly meeting of the accord's so-called joint commission, which brings together senior officials from Iran, France, Germany, Britain, Russia, China and the European Union. The main session of the meeting lasted about three hours.

The agreement was aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. The U.S. withdrew from the accord last year and has imposed new sanctions on Iran in hopes of forcing Tehran into negotiating a wider-ranging deal.

President Donald Trump said on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan that "there's no rush" to ease current 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."

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 an Iranian official 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 face a July 7 deadline set by Tehran to offer long-promised relief from U.S. sanctions, or Iran says it will also begin enriching its uranium closer to weapons-grade levels.

Iranian state TV reported Thursday that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter urging European signatories to the accord to implement their commitments, saying Iran's next steps depend on that.

Britain, France and Germany are finalizing a complicated barter-type system known as INSTEX to maintain trade with Iran and avoid U.S. sanctions, as part of efforts to keep the nuclear deal afloat. 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.

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

The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.," 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."

On Thursday, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.N. 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."

In Osaka, Japan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she and Trump discussed Iran "and the question of how we can get into a negotiating process, which I advocated very strongly."

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also at the summit, said the Gulf region stands "at a crossroads of war and peace," news agency Xinhua and state broadcaster CCTV reported.

"China always stands on the side of peace and opposes war," Xi said, calling on all sides to stay calm, exercise restraint and promote dialogue.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world can't afford a conflict, adding it was "essential to de-escalate the situation" and avoid confrontation.

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Associated Press writers Geir Moulson and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed.

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