UK warns Iran nuclear bomb a year away as foreign ministers seek to save 2015 deal

US senator calls for new deal that would allow Tehran nuclear power in return for an end to regional meddling

Foreign Minister of Spain, Josep Borrell and his British counterpart Jeremy Hunt, attend a EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Johanna Geron
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Iran is a year from developing a nuclear weapon, Britain’s foreign secretary warned on Monday as he joined his European counterparts in scrambling to avoid the nightmare scenario of weapons proliferation across the Middle East.

Jeremy Hunt said there was a small but closing opportunity to save the 2015 nuclear agreement in the face of the military build-up across the region after a series of clashes and Iran’s announcement that it was exceeding the limits of uranium enrichment agreed in the deal.

US President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement last year under which Iran had agreed to limit its nuclear ambitions in return for relief from the sanctions that had crippled its economy.

Tensions between the long-time foes escalated with a series of sabotage attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and the shooting down of a US drone. Mr Trump last month called off retaliatory airstrikes against Iran with minutes to spare.

“We are looking for a way to preserve the nuclear deal which we think is the best way of keeping the Middle East as a whole nuclear weapon free,” said Mr Hunt.

After the summit of European foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, the bloc’s foreign affairs representative, said none of the participants argued Tehran was in “significant non-compliance” and thus held back from triggering its dispute mechanism.

With extra time for diplomacy, officials hope talks with Iran can pull the deal back from the brink while the country’s nuclear programme is contained.

“Iran is still a good year away from developing a nuclear weapon,” said Mr Hunt. “We think there’s still some closing but small window to keep the deal alive.”

Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany have pledged to continue with the nuclear deal but warned Iran that it should not stop taking measures that could breach the agreement. Asked whether European powers would seek to penalise Iran for breaking parts of its nuclear commitments, Mr Hunt said they would seek a meeting of the parties to deal with it.

US senator Lindsey Graham, who backed the Trump decision to withdraw from the agreement, proposed an alternative deal that would allow Iran to have a peaceful nuclear generation programme in return for an end to “its support for terrorism and efforts to destabilise its regional neighbours.”

He said that the US still had to deal with Iran’s ambition to develop its own nuclear weaponry. “If it succeeds, Arab states will try to acquire their own,” he wrote in a comment piece for the Wall Street Journal. “Nuclear proliferation across the Middle East would be a nightmare scenario for the world.”

Tensions remain high between Iran and the UK after British marines seized an Iranian oil tanker earlier this month off the coast of Gibraltar, sparking threats of retaliation from Tehran. The UK said on Friday it was sending a second warship to the Gulf and raising the alert level in the oil-rich region as tensions spike following the threat.

Relations between the two countries have been complicated by the continuing detention of dual nationals, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an aid worker who has been held since 2016 with her family claiming she has been used as a political pawn.

France also demanded answers on Monday over the fate of French-Iranian academic researcher, Fariba Adelkhah, who was arrested in June in Iran for allegedly spying, according to media reports. The French foreign ministry said it had not received a satisfactory response to its request for consular access.

Iran does not recognise dual citizenship and similar requests for diplomats to visit detainees have previously been rebuffed.

Iranian media reports last week floated the prospect of a link between the return of the Iranian oil tanker, Grace 1, with the release of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

In a phone call with Mr Zarif on Saturday, Mr Hunt said the vessel was held over suspicions that it was carrying oil to Syria and not because it was Iranian. He offered to help secure its release if Tehran agreed not to breach EU sanctions to the Bashar Assad regime.

In a statement at the weekend, France, Germany and the UK on Sunday declared their continued support for the nuclear deal. “We believe the time has come to act responsibly and seek a path to stop the escalation of tensions and resume dialogue,” the statement said.

The US urged the EU to take a stronger stance on Iran.

"I think that the time for reflection is over,” said Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU.

He told the BBC that Iran needed to return to the negotiating table for a deal that covered all their activities including “being the world's lead state sponsor of terror, plotting attacks in Europe, their missile development programme and their general Middle East aggression.”.

Iran’s president said the country was ready to talk to the United States if Washington lifts its economic penalties on Tehran. “The moment you stop sanctions and bullying, we are ready to negotiate,” Hassan Rouhani’s official website quoted him as saying on Sunday.