Donald Trump threatened the UK with a 25 per cent tariff on its cars unless the British government officially accused Iran of breaking the 2015 nuclear deal, it has been reported.
The secret threat last week, first reported by The Washington Post, which cited unnamed European officials, would have seen the tariff imposed on all European automobile imports to the US unless Britain, France and Germany agreed to the ultimatum.
It came days before the three European Union powers on Tuesday triggered a dispute mechanism under the agreement which does amount to a formal accusation against Tehran of violating its terms. It could lead to the reinstatement of United Nations sanctions, but is being framed by the Europeans as the last chance to save the nuclear deal.
Iran said on Thursday the European countries had succumbed to a “high school bully”.
“Appeasement confirmed. E3 sold out remnants of #JCPOA to avoid new Trump tariffs,” Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter, using the acronym of the 2015 accord's official title.
“It won’t work my friends. You only whet his appetite. Remember your high school bully?”
The 2015 pact was agreed between Tehran and world powers, offering Iran relief from sanctions if it curbed its nuclear work. Mr Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed US sanctions, telling Tehran he wanted a more stringent deal on nuclear and other issues.
Iran has responded to the US sanctions by scaling back its compliance with the deal, culminating with an announcement this month that it would reject all limits on production of enriched uranium, although it says it wants to keep the deal in place.
Boris Johnson said a “Trump deal” could replace the existing one, were it to fail, while Paris said broad talks were needed.
Two European diplomats confirmed to the Washinton Post that the US had threatened tariffs but said leaders of the three European states had already decided to trigger the mechanism before that.
A third diplomat said such US tactics only undermined the Europeans, who are trying to apply pressure independently.
“True or not it has the effect of discrediting the Europeans, but then Trump doesn’t really care about that,” the diplomat said. “From the Iranian side, it just proves that only the US matters in this.”
The Europeans have long opposed Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, but have been threatening for months to trigger the dispute mechanism if Iran did not comply with it.
The dispute mechanism begins a complex diplomatic process that can end with UN sanctions on Iran “snapping back” into place, although the Europeans say that is not their aim.
In triggering the dispute mechanism, the European countries said they were not backing a US policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, and they still hope to salvage the nuclear deal.
The nuclear dispute lies at the heart of Iran’s long-running standoff with the West that spiralled into open conflict this month when Washington killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad and Tehran responded with missile strikes on US targets in Iraq.
During that period of high alert, Iran shot down a civilian airliner in what it says was a tragic mistake. It has triggered anti-government protests at home.
Enriched uranium can be used to create material for nuclear warheads. Iran denies Western accusations it wants such weapons and says it wants nuclear material for peaceful purposes.
“We are enriching more uranium than before the deal was reached,” president Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech. “Pressure has increased on Iran but we continue to progress.”
US sanctions meanwhile have hammered Iran’s economy. Washington aims to reduce its oil exports to zero.
Additional reporting by Reuters