NEW YORK • After threatening this week to obliterate North Korea, US President Donald Trump upped the ante against Iran, calling a hard-won nuclear deal an embarrassment and casting doubt on whether the United States will renew the agreement.
Yet for all Mr Trump's threats, Washington and Teheran's top diplomats met on Wednesday as envoys scrambled to find ways to prevent the deal from unravelling.
The pact is supported by the other major powers that negotiated it with Iran, and its collapse could trigger a regional arms race and worsen Middle East tensions.
The US said on Wednesday that it is weighing whether the agreement serves its security interests even as Iran said it did not expect Washington to abandon the deal.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met as signatories to the 2015 accord at a European Union-hosted event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini put the bravest possible face on the encounter, emphasising that Iran and the major powers agree the deal is "delivering".
But Mr Tillerson said the discussion had been a political one and that even if Iran is in "technical" compliance with the pact, "significant differences" remain.
Deal's key points
Uranium enrichment capacity: Iran agreed to operate around 5,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment for 10 years. For the first 15 years of the deal, Iran would not enrich beyond the level of 3.67 per cent purity, low-enriched uranium (LEU) of the kind used in nuclear power stations. Iran's stockpile of LEU would also be reduced from its current level of about 7,500kg to 300kg.
Arak heavy water reactor: The core of the Arak reactor would be filled with concrete so the facility cannot be used to produce weapons-grade quantities of plutonium.
Inspections: Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency would have full access to all of Iran's declared nuclear sites.
Weapons embargo: A ban on trade of items that could contribute to Iran's ballistic missile programme would remain for up to eight years. Transfers of certain heavy weapons would be banned for up to five years.
Sanctions relief: As Iran takes the agreed steps, the US and EU would provide guarantees that financial and economic sanctions would be suspended or cancelled.
REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN
Speaking to Iran's state broadcaster after the meeting, Mr Zarif said all "members, except one country, stressed the importance of fully observing the (deal), its being non-negotiable and that all sides should remain committed to this international achievement".
He condemned Washington's "verbosity, especially the very insolent remarks by the president of the country".
Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US signed the 2015 deal with Iran in a bid to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons capability. Teheran agreed to surrender most of its enriched uranium and accept limits to its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of international sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme.
Mr Trump has denounced the agreement and has accused Iran of breaking it in "spirit" by arming militant groups and destabilising the Middle East. In particular, he objects to the "sunset clause" that would see Iran resume some enrichment from 2025.
Mr Tillerson argued that the preamble to the agreement implied that it would lead to a more stable Middle East and said Iran remains a source of instability.
"Regrettably, since the agreement was confirmed we have seen anything but a more peaceful, stable region and this is a real issue," he told reporters. Mr Tillerson said Iran continues to prop up the "horrible" regime of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, carry out banned missile tests and harass shipping in the Gulf.
European diplomats, while sharing those concerns, are becoming exasperated by the argument - insisting the accord was designed solely to stop Iran from getting the bomb. "There is no need to renegotiate parts of the agreement because the agreement is concerning a nuclear programme and as such is delivering," Ms Mogherini said.
The European chief diplomat, who chaired the meeting, argued that it would be unwise to re-open the deal at a time when the world is facing a nuclear threat from North Korea. "We already have one potential nuclear crisis," she said. "We definitely do not need to go into another one."
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also said the tension on the Korean peninsula underlined the importance of the Iranian deal, and that China would continue to support and safeguard it, Chinese state media said.
Iran has ruled out renegotiating the accord. Addressing the UN General Assembly a day after Mr Trump appeared on the same podium to attack Iran, President Hassan Rouhani warned that the fate of the deal cannot be decided by "one or two countries".
"It will be a great pity if this agreement were to be destroyed by rogue newcomers to the world of politics. The world will have lost a great opportunity," he said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
Iran President slams Trump's UN speech. http://str.sg/4j6t