Brussels meeting being held on eve of deadline for Donald Trump to decide whether to reimpose sanctions suspended at time of the deal
European powers are meeting the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif in Brussels to reiterate their support for the Iran nuclear deal, but are likely to urge Iran to consider supplementing the deal to cover ballistic missiles.
Thursday’s event is the first direct meeting between the EU and a senior Iranian leadership figure since the fortnight-long Iranian street protests. The EU leadership will walk a delicate tightrope in condemning the Iranian government crackdown on the protesters, while insisting its leaders remain reliable partners in complying with the nuclear deal signed in 2015.
The Brussels meeting is being held on the eve of a deadline for the US president to decide whether to reimpose sanctions suspended at the time of the deal. Donald Trump could reimpose sanctions either immediately or at some stated future date.
The US State Department said it expected a US decision on Friday, with some Republicans calling for reimposed sanctions as a way of encouraging the Iranian protesters fed up with the economic failures of their government.
Others, including the British, are advising that reimposed sanctions would play into the hands of hardliners in Tehran that can then blame Washington for Iran’s economic difficulties. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, this week said the EU “must be prepared for the US possibly pulling out” of the agreement.
Most analysts are predicting that Trump will not support reimposing sanctions, but the street protests has thrown a wild card into the president’s already unpredictable thinking, making the Brussels meeting an important counterweight.
The former UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, speaking ahead of the Brussels meeting, accused the US of “imperialism” and said that if Trump refused to renew the sanctions waivers, Europe could respond by instructing EU-based companies not to cooperate with the US, a potential means of protecting them from the threat of US sanctions.
Straw, who has just returned from meetings in Iran, said “the west was not delivering its side of the Iran bargain principally because of sanctions by the US that have nothing to do with the nuclear deal but do have an effect on banks”.
He said if Trump pressed ahead and dropped the deal, the EU had to look at “the example of Margaret Thatcher in the 80s who, faced by similar US economic imperialism over a BP deal with Russia, passed legislation prohibiting UK entities from cooperating with the US”. He said “that may have to happen here”, but admitted the proposal was tricky.
The Iranian leadership told Straw on his visit that the protests reflected a belief among the younger generation that they were not benefiting from the nuclear deal. He claimed: “The protests had led to a pretty high degree of questioning about where Iran goes. There is a much bigger free political space in Iran than people imagine. It is much bigger than most countries in the Gulf.”
Apart from the EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, the meeting is attended by the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and his German and French counterparts, Sigmar Gabriel and Jean-Yves le Drian – the three European powers at the heart of the nuclear deal negotiated in 2015. Johnson this week said the Iranian deal remained useful and valid, adding he was urging the US not to throw it away.
But both Johnson and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, have been clear in recent days that their emphatic support for the nuclear deal, and Iran’s compliance with its specific terms, does not extend to endorsement of Iranian behaviour either across the Middle East or domestically.
Macron has been increasingly arguing, notably in a new year’s speech to diplomats last week, that Iran’s deal may have to be supplemented by a ballistic missiles agreement and a wider framework agreement on Iran’s broader foreign policy.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Majid Takht-e Ravanchi, said the US would lose more than Iran if it pulled out of the deal, adding that Iran’s own response would be swift. He emphasised the deal could not be reopened to include new issues. He said: “We have openly told them not to think about negotiations on our defence-related issues and that regional issues are not suitable to be discussed here.”
Zarif has defended its missile programme saying: “We have honed missiles as an effective means of deterrence. Our conscious decision to focus on precision rather than range has afforded us the capability to strike back with pinpoint accuracy. Nuclear weapons do not need to be precise – conventional warheads, however, do.”