Fearing nuclear proliferation, Europe scrambles to calm Iran tensions

By John Irish and Robin Emmott
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Fearing nuclear proliferation, Europe scrambles to calm Iran tensions

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg briefs media after a meeting of the Alliance's ambassadors over the security situation in the Middle East, in Brussels

By John Irish and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU foreign ministers backed away on Friday from any immediate response to Iran's decision to intensify its enrichment of uranium, instead repeating their call for Tehran to respect the limits of a 2015 nuclear arms control accord.

Fearing an open conflict between Iran and the United States, EU foreign ministers, joined by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, held a rare emergency meeting to call for calm following the Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike that killed an Iranian general and Wednesday's retaliatory attacks by Iran.

But unlike the United States, which on Friday imposed new economic sanctions on Iran, the Europeans gave Tehran more time to avoid nuclear proliferation at its doorstep rather than begin a process that could lead to a reimposition of U.N sanctions.

"The region cannot afford another war, we call for an urgent de-escalation and maximum restraint," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters following the meeting.

Borrell said the 28 foreign ministers had agreed to step up their diplomacy to defuse tensions. He gave no specific details beyond reiterating commitment to preserving the nuclear accord and reinforcing support for Iraq.

"We call on Iran to go back to full compliance and we are relying on the IAEA to continue to monitor and verify Iran's activities," referring to the U.N. atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"Maybe we can't avoid that it will finally be cancelled."

Diplomats said that in principle, Berlin, London and Paris have agreed to begin a dispute resolution process under the 2015 deal that could lead to renewed U.N. sanctions on Tehran, but have hesitated on the timing fearing Iran may react badly.

"We were planning to do so, but now it would be seen as an escalatory measure. We still need to focus minds, but it's probably coming soon," an EU diplomat said.

Despite its moves, Iran has said the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, can continue its on-site inspections at its atomic sites, leaving some room for diplomacy.

The meeting, which diplomats said showed EU unity on supporting the Iran deal despite U.S. President Donald Trump's call this week for Europe to walk away from it, contrasted with EU foreign ministers' public comments.

Borrell declined to comment on Iran's resistance to an independent inquiry into the crash of a Ukrainian airliner in Tehran. Canada and others believe the plane was downed by an Iranian missile, probably by mistake.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had already warned before Friday's meeting that Iran could have a nuclear weapon in one to two years if the country fully breaks with a nuclear containment accord it reached with world powers in 2015.

"We want this (nuclear) agreement to have a future, but it only has a future if it is adhered to and we expect this from Iran," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.


CAUGHT BETWEEN IRAN, U.S.

Iran has been gradually discarding the deal's limitations on its enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel since Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018, demanding tougher curbs on Iran.

Tehran has said its steps away from the agreement are reversible if Washington lifts sanctions.

Washington imposed more sanctions on Iran on Friday and a senior U.S. official said its policy on Iran is a more effective non-proliferation tool to force Tehran to negotiate a broader deal than the 2015 nuclear deal.

Following the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, Tehran announced on Sunday it was scrapping all enrichment curbs - leaving the European powers in an awkward position.

Iran has repeatedly denied its nuclear programme has military rather than civilian ends. But it has already breached many of the restrictions meant to increase the amount of time Tehran would need to accumulate enough fissile material for an atomic bomb from two to three months to about a year.

Europeans also want to convince Trump that they are tough-minded allies who will not be deceived by Tehran.

They also fear the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq could be weakened, undermining a core strategic interest for the EU.


(Reporting by John Irish and Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Frances Kerry and Grant McCool)