BRUSSELS (NYTIMES) - Scrambling to save the nuclear agreement with Iran, European foreign ministers declared on Monday (July 15) that Iranian breaches so far were not serious enough to take steps that could lead to reimposed international sanctions and a collapse of the accord.
That conclusion, reached at a meeting in Brussels, effectively extended a lifeline for the 2015 nuclear agreement in defiance of pressure by the Trump administration. The agreement has been increasingly imperilled since the United States abandoned the accord more than a year ago and renewed its own sanctions on Iran.
The European Union ministers reiterated their view that the agreement was the only option for curbing Iran's nuclear programme.
In recent weeks Iran has exceeded the amount and purity of the uranium it is permitted under the accord, transgressions confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Iranians have said they intend to breach the limits even more unless they get what the accord promised Iran: economic relief.
Triggering the dispute-resolution article in the accord would start a process that could lead to the restoration of all the sanctions placed on Iran. That, many analysts say, would almost certainly doom the agreement.
The European reluctance to use the provision came despite pressure from the United States and Israel, which say Iran's breaches are a signal of the country's intent to move towards the capacity to make an atomic bomb. Under the accord, Iran has vowed to never seek such a weapon.
"For the time being, none of the parties to the agreement has signalled their intention to invoke this article," Ms Federica Mogherini, the EU's top foreign policy official, told a news conference after the foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels.
She said that "none of them, for the moment, for the time being, with the current data we have had" believe that there has been "significant non-compliance".
The conclusion was quickly denounced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, whose government regards Iran as the country's most serious security threat.
"The European Union's response to Iranian violations reminds me of the European appeasement of the 1930s," Mr Netanyahu said in a statement reported by Israeli news media. "There are probably some in Europe who will not wake up until Iranian missiles fall on European soil. Then it probably will be too late."
Ms Mogherini, echoing the view of the meeting's participants, said that the nuclear deal was still the only available option.
"The deal has avoided Iran developing a nuclear weapon and today everyone recognises that there is no alternative," she said. "This is the most dramatic and difficult stage."
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he saw little time left to save the deal.
"Iran is still a good year away from developing a nuclear bomb," Mr Hunt said. "There is still some closing, but small window to keep the deal alive."
The European participants in the deal - Britain, France and Germany - issued a joint statement on Sunday evening that said they were still committed to it. They expressed regret that the United States had reimposed sanctions on Iran "even though that country had implemented its commitments under the agreement".
"We believe that the time has come to act responsibly and to seek ways to stop the escalation of tension and resume dialogue," the three countries said in the statement.
But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he saw little reason to be optimistic that the Europeans could save the agreement - known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - by alleviating the punishing effects of US sanctions against Iran.
"The Europeans claim they were willing to maintain the JCPOA, but we have not seen Europe yet to be ready for an investment," he said on Sunday after arriving in New York City for a meeting of the United Nations, Iran's state-run Press TV reported.
Mr Zarif, who was educated in the United States, speaks colloquial English and has extensive contacts in Western media and foreign policy circles, has long vexed the Trump administration, which accuses him of spreading lies. It has considered placing sanctions on Mr Zarif, a move that would sever an important diplomatic conduit with the United States.
In a sign of the antipathy, administration officials granted Mr Zarif a restrictive visa that limits him to the United Nations headquarters, the Iranian Mission and the Iranian ambassador's residence.
"They are worried about Mr Zarif's influential work trips and his media interviews, and the impact it will have on American public opinion," said Mr Seyed Abbas Mousavi, an Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Iran has sent mixed signals about its intentions in recent days, with President Hassan Rouhani expressing a willingness to open new talks with Washington - once sanctions are removed.
"We are always ready for negotiation," he said in a televised speech. "The moment you stop sanctions and bullying, we are ready to negotiate."
But a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mr Behrouz Kamalvandi, said on Monday that unless Europe could salvage the deal, his country would return its nuclear programme to its status before the accord. Its uranium stockpile was much larger then and some was much more highly enriched.
Tensions with Teheran have intensified since President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in May 2018 and reimposed US economic sanctions that had been lifted under the deal.
Mr Trump imposed additional sanctions this year, trying to cut off Iran's ability to sell oil, a pillar of its economy.
Britain, France and Germany have made a commitment to ease the impact of US sanctions but so far have not found an effective way.
The centrepiece of their efforts is the creation of a kind of exchange that would allow European companies to do business with Iran in a way that bypasses the American banking system. Teheran has said that the system, known as Instex, is inadequate.
Arriving at the meeting of Europeans on Monday, Mr Josep Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister and nominee to become the EU's foreign affairs chief, said: "We will do what we can to guarantee that there is no economic embargo against Iran and that European companies can continue working there."
"It's very difficult because US laws applied in an extraterritorial manner, in a way that we don't recognise, make it difficult," he said, adding that Spain would join the Instex mechanism.