By Robin Emmott and Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS, Jan 7 (Reuters) – Germany’s foreign minister called on Tuesday for European powers to forge a joint response to Iran‘s decision to scrap limits imposed on its nuclear enrichment under an arms control accord, but stopped short of calling for renewed U.N. sanctions.
After a crisis meeting with the British and French foreign ministers in Brussels, Heiko Maas voiced some of Europe’s harshest criticism yet of Tehran’s decision, despite a strong European desire to save the 2015 nuclear deal.
“What Iran has announced is, we believe, not the right course and so we need to find a joint response,” Maas told reporters.
Iran said on Sunday it was scrapping limits on it enriching uranium following the U.S. killing of Iran‘s top military commander.
Its announcement left the 2015 deal it signed with the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain all but worthless. Washington quit the deal in May 2018.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday the substance of the deal was slowly disappearing and European powers would decide in coming days whether to launch a dispute resolution process over Iranian violations.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke for an hour by telephone on Tuesday, French officials said, without giving details.
Diplomats told Reuters on Monday that the European parties to the deal would launch the process this week.
Under the 2015 deal, meant to reduce the scope for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for the removal of most international sanctions.
Any of the signatories can trigger a dispute resolution process that could culminate at the U.N. Security Council with a so-called “snapback” of global, U.N. sanctions on Iran.
“Iran cannot build its own nuclear weapons,” Maas said.
The EU countries want the International Atomic Energy Agency to first verify Iran‘s latest announcements on enrichment, EU officials and diplomats said.
The bloc’s 28 ministers meet on Friday in Brussels to discuss the Iran crisis, with a focus on easing tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Some ministers, including Luxembourg’s Jean Asselborn, have suggested a hotline be established between Iran and the United States to encourage dialogue and avoid misunderstandings that could lead to military confrontation.
“It is imperative that we find a way to de-escalate things,” Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, France’s junior foreign affairs minister, told Reuters in an interview.
“The Europeans need to be the voice of reason. Because of everything that has happened it’s even more important to have contact with all actors to avoid the worst and a vicious cycle of reprisals that leads to a fatal escalation.”
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Guy Faulconbridge in London, Editing by Peter Graff and Timothy Heritage)