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BRUSSELS -- European foreign ministers declared Monday that Iranian breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal so far were not serious enough to take steps that could lead to reimposed international sanctions and a collapse of the accord.

That conclusion, at a meeting in Brussels, effectively extended a lifeline for the 2015 nuclear agreement, which has been increasingly imperiled since the United States abandoned the accord more than a year ago and renewed its own sanctions on Iran.

The 28 European Union ministers reiterated their view that the agreement was the only option to curb Iran's nuclear program.

"We note that technically all the steps that have been taken -- and that we regret have been taken -- are reversible. So we hope and we invite Iran to reverse the steps," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

In recent weeks, Iran has exceeded the amount and purity of the uranium it is permitted under the accord -- transgressions that the International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed. The Iranians have said they intend to breach the limits even more unless they get what the accord promised Iran: economic relief.

"The deviations are not significant enough to think that Iran has definitively broken the agreement," said Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who is in line to succeed Mogherini this fall.

Triggering the dispute-resolution article in the accord would start a process that could restore all sanctions placed on Iran. That, many analysts say, would almost certainly doom the agreement.

The European reluctance to use the provision came despite pressure from both the United States and Israel, which say Iran's breaches are a signal of the country's intent to move toward the capacity to make an atomic bomb. Under the accord, Iran has vowed to never seek such a weapon.

"For the time being, none of the parties to the agreement has signaled their intention to invoke this article," Mogherini told a news conference after the foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.

Mogherini said that "none of them, for the moment, for the time being, with the current data we have had" believe that there has been "significant noncompliance."

The conclusion was quickly denounced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, whose government regards Iran as the country's most serious security threat.

"The European Union's response to Iranian violations reminds me of the European appeasement of the 1930s," Netanyahu said in a statement reported by Israeli news media. "There are probably some in Europe who will not wake up until Iranian missiles fall on European soil. Then it probably will be too late."

Mogherini, echoing the view of the meeting's participants, said the nuclear deal was still the only available option.

"The deal has avoided Iran developing a nuclear weapon and today everyone recognizes that there is no alternative," she said. "This is the most dramatic and difficult stage."

Jeremy Hunt, Britain's foreign secretary, said he saw little time left to save the deal.

"Iran is still a good year away from developing a nuclear bomb," Hunt said. "There is still some closing, but small window to keep the deal alive."

China, another signatory to the global agreement, said U.S. pressure was the root cause of recent developments and called on President Donald Trump's administration to step in and fix the diplomatic quagmire.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said it was "better for the one who made the trouble to fix it."

The EU currently has few direct measures for offsetting U.S. economic sanctions against Tehran, which have crippled the country's economy, and the bloc faces U.S. threats to target any EU companies that attempt to trade with Iran.

The European signatories to the deal -- Britain, France and Germany -- issued a joint statement Sunday evening that said they were still committed to it. They expressed regret that the United States had reimposed sanctions on Iran "even though that country had implemented its commitments under the agreement."

"We believe that the time has come to act responsibly and to seek ways to stop the escalation of tension and resume dialogue," the three countries said in the statement. "The risks are such that it is necessary that all stakeholders take a break, and consider the possible consequences of their actions."

But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that he saw little reason to be optimistic that the European signatories could save the agreement -- known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action -- by alleviating the punishing effects of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

"The Europeans claim they were willing to maintain the JCPOA, but we have not seen Europe yet to be ready for an investment," he said Sunday after arriving in New York City for a meeting of the United Nations, Iran's state-run Press TV reported.

MIXED SIGNALS

Iran has sent mixed signals about its intentions in recent days, with President Hassan Rouhani expressing a willingness to open new talks with Washington once sanctions are removed.

"We are always ready for negotiation," he said in a televised speech. "The moment you stop sanctions and bullying, we are ready to negotiate."

But a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said Monday that unless Europe could salvage the deal, his country would return its nuclear program to its status before the accord. Its uranium stockpile was much larger then and some of it was much more highly enriched.

Tensions with Tehran have intensified since Trump last year withdrew the United States from the accord that scaled back Iran's nuclear program and reimposed U.S. economic sanctions that had been lifted under the deal.

Trump imposed additional sanctions this year, trying to cut off Iran's ability to sell oil, a pillar of its economy.

Britain, France and Germany have made a commitment to ease the impact of U.S. sanctions but so far have not found an effective way to do so.

The centerpiece of their efforts is the creation of a kind of exchange that would allow European companies to do business with Iran in a way that bypasses the American banking system. Tehran has said that the system, known as Instex, is inadequate.

"We will do what we can to guarantee that there is no economic embargo against Iran and that European companies can continue working there," Borrell said.

"It's very difficult because U.S. laws applied in an extraterritorial manner, in a way that we don't recognize, make it difficult," he said, adding that Spain would join the Instex mechanism.

Mogherini said that the mechanism had to become "faster and more operational," but that even at this early stage, countries that are not members of the EU had expressed interest in joining Instex. She declined to say which countries.

"We're doing our best, and we hope that this will be enough," Mogherini said in defending the Instex system. She said the first transactions were being processed.

Even if Britain, France, Germany and the rest of the EU held out a helping hand to Iran, the diplomatic puzzle was made more difficult Monday when France's Foreign Ministry said a researcher with dual French-Iranian nationality had been arrested in Iran.

It said the French government was seeking information about Fariba Abdelkhah and consular access to her "without delay" but added there has been "no satisfactory response to its demands as of today."

Iranian opposition websites based abroad have said Abdelkhah disappeared in June.

Information for this article was contributed by Matina Stevis-Gridneff of The New York Times; and by Raf Casert, Joseph Wilson and Elaine Ganley of The Associated Press.

A Section on 07/16/2019

Print Headline: EU tries to rescue Iran pact

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