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EU hopes to increase trade with Iran, despite US sanctions

Iran's energy chief says Tehran could increase uranium enrichment if the Iran nuclear deal collapses
Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi and European Commissioner for Energy and Climate, Miguel Arias Canete at a joint press conference in Tehran (Reuters)

EU and Iranian energy officials have pledged to remain committed to the Iran nuclear deal, despite the possibility of US sanctions, after a meeting in Tehran on Saturday.

In a sign of a growing rift between Europe and the United States over Iran, the European Commissioner for Energy and Climate, Miguel Arias Canete, said that the European Union remained committed to salvaging the nuclear deal.

Canete added that rather than reducing trade to avoid the recently reimposed US sanctions the bloc hopes to increase trade with Iran.

"We have sent a message to our Iranian friends that as long as they are sticking to the [nuclear] agreement the Europeans will ... fulfill their commitment. And they said the same thing on the other side," Canete told a news conference Reuters reported.

"We will try to intensify our flows of trade that have been very positive for the Iranian economy."

Iran's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said his country hoped the EU would manage to salvage the 2015 deal, in which Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of most Western sanctions.

"We hope their efforts materialise ... America's actions ... show that it is not a trustworthy country in international dealings," Salehi told the joint news conference in Tehran.

Since Trump's announcement on 8 May that the US would exit the agreement and unilaterally reimpose sanctions on Iran, European countries have said they will try to keep Iran's oil and investment flowing but have also admitted they will struggle to provide the guarantees Tehran seeks.

Britain, France and Germany back the deal as the best way of stopping Tehran getting nuclear weapons, but have called on Iran to limit its regional influence and curb the missile programme.

Salehi, echoing Iran's official stance, ruled out any possibility of renegotiating the accord.

Iran could increase uranium enrichment

Salehi said Iran had several options, including increasing uranium enrichment to 20 percent, if the European countries failed to keep the pact alive. He said the EU had only a few weeks to deliver on their promises.

"If the other side keeps itself committed to its promises we also will be keeping ourselves to our promises ... We hope the situation will not arise to the point that we will have to go back to the worst option," Salehi told reporters in English.

Under the 2015 deal, Iran's level of enrichment must remain at around 3.6 percent. Iran stopped producing 20 percent enriched uranium and gave up the majority of its stockpile as part of the agreement.

Uranium refined to 20 percent fissile purity is well beyond the 5 percent normally required to fuel civilian nuclear power plants, although still well short of the highly enriched, or 80 to 90 percent, purity needed for a nuclear bomb. Iran has struggled to reap benefits from the accord, partly because of remaining unilateral US sanctions that have deterred major Western investors from doing business with Tehran.

Iranian officials have tried to assure ordinary Iranians, frustrated by high unemployment and stagnant living standards, that Trump's decision would have no impact on the country's oil-reliant economy.

"Unfortunately because of the negative interferences of the US, we were not able to reap the fruits of the JCPOA we expected," Salehi said, referring to the Iran deal, which is officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

"So the public opinion is not as supportive as it was before and if the other side does not deliver ... we will keep losing the support of our people for the JCPOA."

Iran's clerical rulers fear a revival of January's anti-government protests that underlined the establishment's vulnerability to popular anger fueled by economic hardship.

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