Iranian officials have increased pressure before a weekend deadline for European nations to come up with a solution for Iran to sell its oil abroad in the aftermath of reimposed sanctions by the United States after its unilateral withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear deal.
President Hassan Rouhani reiterated on Wednesday a threat that Tehran would take additional steps away from the crumbling accord on Friday and accelerate its nuclear activities if Europe fails to provide a solution.
The deal, which was agreed by Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US, offered Tehran relief from many international sanctions in exchange for accepting curbs on its nuclear programme. Since Washington pulled out of the deal last year and reimposed sanctions, Iran has insisted it wants to save the pact but has demanded the remaining signatories – especially the Europeans – provide additional economic support.
In two separate moves, it has reduced its commitments outlined in the deal and threatens to take further measures by September 5 unless the European signatories of the pact did more to protect Iran from the effects of the US penalties.
“Iran’s third step is of an extraordinarily significant nature,” Rouhani said, without detailing what that would entail, but saying a “decree will be announced today or tomorrow.”
He added: “I see that it’s unlikely a conclusion will be reached with Europe today or tomorrow,” adding that European powers have another two months to resume talks and save the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“They know what we want, and we know what they want,” Rouhani said.
The statements came as Iranian officials appeared to give mixed signals in response to a French proposal to save the agreement by offering Iran about $15bn in credit lines until the end of the year if Tehran comes fully back into compliance.
Iranian officials initially said they were considering the French plan when news of it emerged on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi appeared to back its main terms.
“Our return to the full implementation of the nuclear accord is subject to the receipt of $15bn over a four-month period, otherwise the process of reducing Iran’s commitments will continue,” the semi-official news agency Fars quoted Araqchi as saying.
“Either Europe has to buy oil from Iran or provide Iran with the equivalent of selling oil as a credit line guaranteed by Iran’s oil revenues, which in some sense means a pre-sale of oil,” Araqchi added.
Soon after, Iran’s English-language Press TV issued a short report stating: “Iran has rejected a $15 billion loan offered by EU,” without giving further details. Western and Iranian sources had described the French plan as the offer of a credit line, not a loan, although the precise details have not been made public.
US sanctions imposed after Trump withdrew from the deal have curbed Iran’s oil exports and sent its economy into freefall while what was left of the deal steadily unravelled.
At the same time, tensions have spiked across the Gulf over mysterious tanker explosions, the shooting down of a US military surveillance drone by Iran and the US deploying more troops and fighter jets to the region.
The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed last week that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium still exceeds the amount allowed by the deal.
The UN agency also said Iran continues to enrich uranium up to 4.5 percent, above the 3.67 percent allowed under the JCPOA but still far below weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.
French President Emmanuel Macron is leading talks seeking relief for Iran and de-escalation of tensions. This week, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif travelled to Moscow while Araghchi went to Paris and elsewhere in Europe to press for a solution.
Little seems to have come out of those trips.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Abbas Mousavi told Iranian state television that Tehran will free seven crew members of the seized British-flagged tanker Stena Impero on humanitarian grounds.
“We have no problem with the crew and the captain and the issue is violations that the vessel committed,” Mousavi said.
The Swedish-owned Stena Impero was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on July 19 in the Strait of Hormuz waterway for alleged marine violations, two weeks after Britain seized an Iranian tanker off the territory of Gibraltar.
That ship was released in August.