European countries said on Thursday they wanted to preserve Iran's nuclear deal and rejected "ultimatums" from Tehran, after Iran relaxed restrictions on its nuclear programme and threatened moves that might breach the 2015 international pact.
Iran's announcement on Wednesday, related to curbs on its stockpiling of nuclear materials, was in response to US sanctions imposed following President Donald Trump's withdrawal of the United States from the accord with Tehran a year ago.
Iran's initial moves do not appear to violate the accord yet. But President Hassan Rouhani said that unless the world powers which signed the deal protect Iran's economy from US sanctions within 60 days, Iran would start enriching uranium beyond limits set in the agreement.
"We reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran's compliance on the basis of Iran's performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments ...," read a statement issued jointly by the European Union and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, co-signatories of the deal.
"We are determined to continue pursuing efforts to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran," they said, adding that this included getting a special purpose vehicle aimed at enabling non-dollar business with Iran off the ground.
In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a Twitter post that EU countries should uphold their obligations in the nuclear deal with Iran and normalise economic ties despite US sanctions, "instead of demanding that Iran unilaterally abide by a multilateral accord".
The nuclear deal required Iran to curb its uranium enrichment capacity to head off any pathway to developing a nuclear bomb, in return for the removal of most international sanctions. A series of more intrusive UN inspections under the deal have verified that Iran is meeting its commitments.
Iran has always denied that it was seeking a nuclear weapon and says it wants to abide by the nuclear deal.
The Trump administration argues that the nuclear deal was flawed because it is not permanent, does not address Iran's missile programme and does not punish Iran for what Washington considers meddling in regional countries.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alluded to that in a statement on Thursday.
"To date the regime’s default option has been violence, and we appeal to those in Tehran who see a path to a prosperous future through de-escalation to modify the regime's behavior," Pompeo said.
"Our restraint to this point should not be mistaken by Iran for a lack of resolve," Pompeo said.
Trump Renews Talks Appeal
Trump, who has previously expressed a willingness to meet Iranian leaders to no avail, on Thursday renewed that appeal in an impromptu news conference at the White House.
"They should call. If they do, we're open to talk to them," Trump said.
He also said he could not rule out a military confrontation given the heightened tensions. Trump declined to say what prompted him to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group to the region over what was described as unspecified threats.
In an MSNBC interview, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi said: "All of a sudden he decided to leave the negotiating table ... What is the guarantee that he will not renege again?"
He dismissed US allegations of an Iranian threat as "fake intelligence" comparing it to the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The commander overseeing US naval forces in the Middle East told Reuters on Thursday that American intelligence showing a threat from Iran will not prevent him from sending an aircraft carrier through the vital Strait of Hormuz, if needed.
"I am not in a war-plan footing and have not been tasked to do so," US Vice Admiral Jim Malloy, commander of the US Navy's Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, said in a phone interview. "However we are absolutely ready to respond to any aggression against the United States, partners in the region, or our interests."
The Trump administration has ratcheted up sanctions this month, effectively ordering all countries to halt all purchases of Iranian oil or face their own sanctions.
The move creates a dilemma for Washington's European allies which say they share its concerns about Iranian behavior but think the Trump administration's tactics are likely to backfire.
The European allies believe Trump's campaign to isolate the Islamic Republic plays into the hands of Tehran hardliners and undermines pragmatists within the Iranian leadership who want to open the country up to the world.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday called for the nuclear deal to be extended to cover other issues of concern to the West, such as Iran's regional policies and ballistic missiles, rather than jettisoned.
"Leaving the 2015 nuclear agreement is a mistake because it is undoing what we have already done. That's why France is remaining and will remain a part of it and I deeply hope that Iran will remain," Macron said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU wants to avoid an escalation in the dispute and Tehran must recognise that it is in its own interests to remain committed to the deal.
European countries have tried to develop a system to allow outside investors to do business with Iran while avoiding falling foul of US sanctions. But in practice this has failed so far, with all major European firms that had announced plans to invest in Iran saying they would no longer do so.
A spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation said on Thursday Tehran's goal was to bring the agreement "back on track".
But Tehran has also maintained that it will leave the deal, known as the JCPOA, unless it receives more economic support as envisaged by the 2015 pact.
"We have not left the JCPOA so far, but we have put such a move on our agenda and that would happen step by step," Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted as saying by state-run PressTV on Wednesday night.
Supporters of the nuclear deal, including Trump's predecessor Barack Obama and European allies, say the pact extends the time it would take Iran to make a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and guarantees that it would be caught.Lifting sanctions, they argue, would show ordinary Iranians the benefits of cooperating with the world and make it more difficult for hardliners to roll back reforms.