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Britain, Germany and France said they would retain a range of sanctions on Iran that had been due to expire next month, in response to concerns over Tehran’s expansion of its nuclear programme.
The decision of the “E3” nations, which signed up to the deal, was a “legitimate and proportionate” response to Iran’s moves to advance its nuclear programme “beyond all credible civilian justification”, the UK said on Thursday.
The three countries informed Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat and the co-ordinator of talks between Iran and western powers, of their move, on the basis that Tehran was not meeting its obligations under a 2015 deal to reduce the scope of its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
“They had registered their concerns that Iran was not meeting its commitments,” Borrell said on Thursday. “They express their intent not to take the steps regarding the lifting of further sanctions.”
When the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was first agreed in 2015, it held that a range of UN, EU and UK sanctions would be lifted eight years after its implementation, a deadline that falls on October 18.
This included sanctions on individuals and entities linked to Iran’s missile, nuclear, and other arms programmes.
However, Iran and the west have been locked in a stand-off over the nuclear accord since former US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned it and imposed waves of sanctions on the Islamic republic.
Iran was complying with the accord prior to Trump’s withdrawal. The E3 opposed his decisions and remained signatories to the JCPOA.
But they have become increasingly concerned about the expansion of Iran’s nuclear programme after Tehran responded to Trump’s measures by enhancing its atomic activity.
It is now enriching uranium close to weapons-grade levels. Western capitals have also been angered by Iran’s decision to sell armed drones to Moscow, which Russian forces have used in its invasion of Ukraine.
The E3 decided that Iran’s continued non-compliance with its commitments under the nuclear deal and its escalation of its nuclear programme meant the UN sanctions would be transferred into their domestic sanctions regimes, and that the EU and UK sanctions the trio already have in place would be maintained.
The Iranian regime’s enriched uranium stockpiles are more than 18 times the JCPOA limit and it has also built and installed advanced centrifuges.
Iran’s foreign ministry dismissed the decision to retain the sanctions as unacceptable, warning that the move would complicate relations and negatively impact mutual co-operation aimed at the revival of the nuclear deal.
“Without doubt, Iran will deliver a proportionate response to this illegal and provocative action, which is a blatant violation of the commitments of the European Union, France, Germany and the UK under the JCPOA and UN Security Council Resolution 2231 [that endorsed it],” the ministry said.
The Foreign Office in London said: “The UK and our partners remain committed to a diplomatic solution but Iran must now take clear steps towards de-escalation. We are committed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”
European officials reject the characterisation of the Iran nuclear deal as defunct, despite Tehran’s non-compliance with its terms and the US exit in 2018.
Borrell said on Thursday, despite the E3 decision, that he “remain[ed] fully committed and I will spare no effort working towards the restoration of the JCPOA and the resumption of the full implementation of the deal”.
The European decision comes as the US and Iran are edging closer to completing a prisoner exchange deal that Washington hopes will help ease tensions with Tehran.
Last month, Iran transferred four US nationals from prison to house arrest as part of a deal under which the US has agreed to allow Iran access to $6bn of its frozen oil money held in South Korea. Under the deal, Iran is to allow five US detainees to leave the republic, with Washington expected to release a similar number of Iranian prisoners.
The US and Iran have also been indirectly discussing de-escalation measures to contain the nuclear crisis, including on the Islamic republic agreeing to cap its production of highly enriched uranium.