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French envoy holds talks in Tehran in bid to salvage nuclear deal

Atta Kenare, AFP | Emmanuel Bonne, left, meets with Ali Shamkhani (right), the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, in Tehran on July 10.

French President Emmanuel Macron's top diplomatic advisor met with Iran's president on Wednesday, winding up a day of talks in Tehran aimed at saving a landmark 2015 nuclear deal and easing tensions between Tehran and Washington.

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But as Emmanuel Bonne pressed the high-level talks, US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to warn that US sanctions against Iran would soon be "increased substantially", charging Tehran had "long been secretly 'enriching'" uranium.

In his meeting with Bonne, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said Tehran had "completely kept the path of diplomacy and talks open", according to a statement from his office.

He called on other parties to the deal to "completely implement their commitments" to keep it alive.

Bonne also met Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his deputy Abbas Araghchi.

His mission was "to try and open the discussion space to avoid an uncontrolled escalation, or even an accident", according to French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Before meeting with Bonne, Zarif said "negotiations are never possible under pressure", in reference to US sanctions against Iran.

Pointing to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, he added that the Europeans "must solve that problem".

Europe ‘caught between Tehran and Washington’

The 2015 accord between Iran and world powers, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), promised sanctions relief, economic benefits and an end to international isolation in return for stringent curbs on the Islamic republic's nuclear programme.

But Tehran says it has lost patience with perceived inaction by European countries more than a year after Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the agreement and imposed punishing sanctions.

However Europe is also trapped in a difficult position, explained Scott Lucas from the University of Birmingham. “Iran doesn’t want to come out of the deal. Iran has adhered to the deal ever since it was signed in 2015. But at the same time Iran is facing comprehensive American sanctions that are hurting its economy,” explained Lucas in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“So Iran is saying to the Europeans, if you cannot help us save our economy, if we have to go almost into this sacrificial resistance economy, then we’re going to go unilateral in terms of testing the limits of the deal. In other words, Europe now is caught between Tehran and Washington.”

The European parties to the deal along with the EU's diplomatic chief on Tuesday called on Tehran to reverse its breaches of the agreement.

Iran "must act accordingly by... returning to full JCPOA compliance without delay", said a statement from the European Union and foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain.

‘Very critical phase’

Bonne arrived in Tehran after Iran announced on Monday it had surpassed 4.5 percent uranium enrichment -- above the 3.67 percent limit under the accord, though still far below the 90 percent necessary for military purposes.

Earlier this month, it was confirmed that Iran surpassed 300 kilogrammes of enriched uranium reserves, another limit that was imposed by the deal.

At the request of the US, the International Atomic Energy Agency was to hold a special meeting on Iran's nuclear programme at its Vienna headquarters on Wednesday.

A source at the French presidency said "we are in a very critical phase. The Iranians are taking measures that are in violation (of the agreement) but (they) are very calibrated".

"Donald Trump is a dealmaker," the source added. "The Iranians exaggerate, but not too much, and Trump is exerting maximum pressure but he is doing this so that he can get a deal."

After Washington withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018, it reimposed stinging sanctions on Tehran, hitting the banking and oil sectors hard.

As the Iranian economy went into free fall, Iran demanded that the other parties -- especially France, Germany and Britain -- deliver promised economic benefits and help it bypass the US sanctions.

Iran ends 'strategic patience' 

However, it became clear that this was no simple task, and Iran -- whose economy depends heavily on oil exports -- changed tack and indicated it would reshape its policy of "strategic patience".

In May, a year after Trump's withdrawal, Rouhani said Iran would roll back its commitments under the deal in stages every 60 days in an effort to force the other parties to deliver on their side of the bargain.

As tensions rose, the US dispatched a naval carrier, bombers and extra troops to the region to counter perceived threats from Iran.

Last month, Trump said he had called off a retaliatory military strike against Iran at the last minute after the Islamic republic shot down a US drone that it said had crossed into its airspace, a claim denied by Washington.

Trump re-upped the pressure Wednesday, claiming "Iran has long been secretly 'enriching'" uranium in violation of the accord.

"Remember, that deal was to expire in a short number of years. Sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!"

Despite the heightened rhetoric between the US and Iran, Macron is pursuing his diplomatic track.

On Saturday, he held an hour-long conversation with Rouhani in which he said he wanted to "explore the conditions for a resumption of dialogue between all parties".

The White House confirmed that Macron and Trump had also discussed the standoff.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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