The European Union is scrambling to arrange a crisis meeting with Iran after Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement, as the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said Europe had a “very limited opportunity” to save the deal.
A day after the US president broke with the landmark 2015 agreement and warned he would seek to hit European businesses that continued to trade with Tehran, the EU vowed to take steps to immunise firms from any US sanctions.
Foreign ministers aim to reassure Tehran that the nuclear deal is salvageable at a meeting currently slated for Monday in London which they are expecting their Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to attend.
In a phone call on Wednesday between Emmanuel Macron and Rouhani, the French president stressed his willingness “to continue enforcing the Iran nuclear agreement in all respects”, the Elysée said in a statement. The statement added that Macron had “underlined the importance that Iran do the same”.
The Iranian Students’ News Agency quoted Rouhani as telling Macron: “Under the current conditions, Europe has a very limited opportunity to preserve the nuclear deal, and must, as quickly as possible, clarify its position and specify and announce its intentions with regard to its obligations.”
EU ministers hope to put forward a credible package to soothe Iranian fears about the effect of Trump’s decision on EU-Iranian trade.
The ministers recognise that Iran will only stay inside the deal if they are confident that the promised economic benefits can survive an American sanctions assault. But they were keen to stress that Trump’s move had not necessarily dealt the agreement a fatal blow.
“The deal is not dead. There is an American withdrawal from the deal but the deal is still there,” Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, told RTL radio.
Tehran had complained in recent weeks that the EU had gone too far to appease Trump. But it appeared on Wednesday that, after the failure of its diplomatic charm offensive with Washington, Europe was going to unite to protect the deal, even if it meant putting its member states on an economic collision course with the US.
Work on the package being coordinated by the European Union is at an early stage, but the EU is being urged to warn the US it will impose countersanctions if the US attempts unjustifiably to cripple EU firms trading with Iran.
In his phone call with Rouhani, Macron also underscored the intention to have a broader discussion with all the relevant parties on the development of Iran’s nuclear programme after 2025, when key elements of the current deal expire, as well as Iran’s ballistic missile programme and wider Middle East issues.
The UK also believes a wider package, originally designed to form a follow-on nuclear disarmament agreement with Iran, still needs to be agreed, even though its specific proposals were rejected by Trump.
Many European diplomats believe that Washington has no plan in preparation on how to contain Iran, apart from placing such intense economic pressure on Iran that a popular rising leads to regime change.
Asked about his next steps, Donald Trump appeared uncertain at a cabinet meeting.
“They’ll negotiate or something will happen,” the president said, warning that if Iran resumed the nuclear activities, there would be “very severe consequences”.
Senior diplomats from the US, the UK, France and Germany talked on Wednesday in a pre-arranged conference call which European officials had thought would be a last-ditch effort to salvage the nuclear deal.
They had not expected Trump to make the announcement of his intention to abandon the agreement until the end of the week. Instead of focusing on ways of saving the Iran nuclear deal with a supplemental agreement, the discussion focused largely on sanctions the US would be imposing on European companies dealing with Iran.
The breadth and severity of those sanctions have taken the Europeans by surprise, as it was unclear until the last moment how far Trump would go in breaking with the Iran deal.
“We did not talk about a Plan B in our discussions because we were focused on negotiating a supplemental agreement, so we did not – we did not talk about Plan B,” a senior US administration official said.
“We believe that by getting rid of the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal], we can come up with a more comprehensive deal, a more comprehensive approach that doesn’t just focus on the nuclear file,” the official said.
However, analysts said it would now be extremely hard, if not impossible, to rally the same international solidarity in putting pressure on Iran that had made the Iran deal possible in the first place.
“Trump claims he is going to pursue a better deal, which is a long-held myth,” Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said. “He doesn’t stand a chance of getting the requisite international support for sanction pressure or a negotiating strategy to make that a realistic goal.”
The three EU countries with the deepest exposure to Iran are France, Germany and Italy, but the UK has also been trying to build its business links to a country with 80 million, mainly young, customers.
Late on Tuesday night, the UK Foreign Office issued revised recommendations to British firms investing in Iran, urging them to consult the US Treasury sanctions plans, as well as to seek their own legal advice on them.
The value of trade between the EU and Iran has soared from $9.2bn (£6.8bn) in 2015 to $16.4bn in 2016 after the deal was signed. In 2017, trade reached $25bn.
Patrick Pouyanné, the chief executive of the French energy firm Total, has already called for the EU to pass a blocking statute, similar to that passed in the 1990s to protect EU firms from US sanctions. Total is working on the $3.8bn South Pars project, in the world’s largest gas field.
In Germany, where trade with Iran has risen by 42% since 2015 to €3.4bn a year, Dieter Kempf, president of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), said the country was not prepared to give up on Iran as a market. “Our firms have invested a lot of hope in the market openings that resulted from the lifting of the economic sanctions,” he said. “Now these prospects have been considerably dampened.”