Europe warned on Tuesday that it would reimpose sanctions on Iran if Tehran abandoned parts of the nuclear deal signed with world powers four years ago, following fresh US sanctions and deployment of warships to the Arabian Gulf.
Iranian officials have been considering a partial withdrawal from parts of the 2015 agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for a waiver on nuclear-related economic sanctions.
Iranian state media reported Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would announce the reduction of some of Iran’s “minor and general” commitments under the deal on May 8, one year after US President Donald Trump announced the US pull-out.
"We do not want Tehran to announce tomorrow actions that would violate the nuclear agreement, because in this case we Europeans would be obliged to reimpose sanctions as per the terms of the agreement," an unnamed French official told Reuters.
"We don't want that and we hope that the Iranians will not make this decision."
The other signatories to the deal – Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China – remain committed to it.
European guarantors – who have been unofficially told about Iran’s decision – have issued warnings. In a joint statement on May 4, the European Union and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany said they were troubled by the US decision "not to fully renew waivers for nuclear non-proliferation projects in the framework” of the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The United States on May 3 announced it would not extend two sanctions waivers regarding Iran’s nuclear activities as part of efforts to force Tehran to stop producing low-enriched uranium.
According to nuclear inspectors, Tehran has kept its nuclear program within the main limits imposed by the accord. Iran is allowed to keep 300 kilogrammes of uranium enriched up to 3.67 per cent, far below the level needed to build nuclear weapons.
Tensions between the US and European leaders over the nuclear deal are still running high. A planned meeting in Germany between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chancellor Angela Merkel was cancelled at the last minute on Tuesday. Mr Pompeo was due to meet Mrs Merkel and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Berlin but State Department spokesman said the talks needed to be rescheduled due to "pressing issues".
Mrs Merkel's office confirmed the cancellation "by the American side."
“Unfortunately, we must reschedule the Berlin meetings due to pressing issues. We look forward to rescheduling this important set of meetings. The Secretary looks forward to being in Berlin soon,” the US Embassy cited a State Department spokesperson as saying, according to The New York Times.
As part of its plan to apply maximum pressure on Tehran, the Trump administration is now deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East. In another provocative move, the Trump administration also said recently that it was designating the IRGC as a terrorist organisation.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton said on Sunday that the carrier group and a bomber task force were being dispatched in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” about Iranian reprisals for US sanctions pressure. “We are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces,” Mr Bolton said.
Iran talked of striking back at the United States last month, after President Trump announced short-term exceptions permitting some Iranian oil trade would be discontinued.
Last week, tighter sanctions went into effect and experts predict they will drive Iran’s oil exports down from about 1.1 million barrels a day to perhaps 200,00 to 300,000 barrels a day, further damaging Iran’s reeling economy.
Nearly one-third of all seaborne crude oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz – the opening between Oman and Iran – as well as about 30 per cent of all natural gas shipped on tankers.
If tensions were to escalate further, Iran could decide to take the drastic step of choking off one of the world’s vital economic arteries by closing the strait.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also issued a warning to the Islamic Republic, saying “it is absolutely the case that we have seen escalatory actions from the Iranians and it is equally the case that we will hold the Iranians accountable for attacks on American interests”.
“If these actions take place, if they do by some third-party proxy, a militia group, Hezbollah, we will hold the Iranian leadership directly accountable for that.”