VIENNA -- Diplomats from Iran and several world powers recommitted Sunday to salvaging their nuclear deal amid mounting tensions between the West and Tehran.
Iran's deputy foreign minister said the emergency meeting in Vienna had yielded positive developments but had not "resolved everything."
"The atmosphere was constructive, and the discussions were good," Abbas Araghchi told reporters.
Araghchi said he and his partners from Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and the European Union remain determined to save the 2015 agreement that restricts the Iranian nuclear program. The deal has been in jeopardy since the U.S. withdrew from the accord and reimposed sanctions on Iran.
Fu Cong, the head of Chinese delegation, said that while there were "some tense moments" during the meeting, "on the whole, the atmosphere was very good. Friendly. And it was very professional."
Both diplomats said there was a general agreement to organize a higher-level meeting of foreign ministers soon, but they said preparations for such a meeting needed to be done well. A date has not been set.
Fu said the Europeans urged Iran to return to full compliance, and Iran urged the EU, France, Britain and Germany to activate a barter-type system that would allow European businesses to trade with Tehran without violating the sanctions that U.S. President Donald Trump reinstated.
Araghchi said the European system was "not functioning yet, but it is in its final stages."
Fu said all sides expressed strong opposition against the unilateral imposition of sanctions by the United States. They also voiced support for China's efforts to maintain normal trade and oil relations with Iran, Fu added.
Iran is pressuring the European parties by pushing beyond the limits set by the nuclear accord. The country recently started enriching uranium to 4.5%, past a 3.67% limit permitted under the deal, saying the action could be reversed if the Europeans came up with incentives that compensated for the effect of the sanctions on the Iranian economy.
Araghchi told reporters after the meeting that Iran will continue decreasing its commitments to the 2015 deal until the Europeans meet its demands.
Iran's move to exceed the uranium-enrichment limits has been seen as a violation likely to prompt the European signatories to invoke a dispute-resolution mechanism. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched at a level of 90%.
The increased enrichment was verified by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The U.N. agency has also confirmed that Iran has exceeded its 660-pound stockpile limit on enriched uranium.
On Sunday, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization told the country's lawmakers that the Islamic Republic had actually enriched 80 times that amount in total since it agreed to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted as saying Iran "did not enrich [660 pounds] of uranium, but enriched 24 [metric] tons of uranium" -- or nearly 53,000 pounds.
The contention was reported widely by state-run and semiofficial media, which cited conservative lawmakers present at the private meeting.
Although the 2015 nuclear accord limits Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium, it also permits Iran to enrich uranium and export it, as it has with Russia in past years.
Experts warn that a higher enrichment level and a growing uranium stockpile narrow the one-year window that Iran would need to have enough material to make an atomic bomb, something Iran denies it wants but that the deal prevented.
However, some experts expressed skepticism about Salehi's comments, suggesting that he may have been talking about enriched uranium that was produced but subsequently diluted or "downblended" -- a process that could be used to keep machines running while still ultimately yielding relatively low-enriched uranium.
Salehi also said that Iran was moving to restart activity at the heavy-water nuclear reactor at its Arak facility, according to the accounts.
Experts had deemed Arak's heavy-water reactor a risk as it could allow Iran to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The nuclear deal required Iran to pour concrete into the pipes of the reactor's calandria, or core, as part of a redesign.
Salehi had said last week that the redesign of the heavy-water reactor, which was being done in partnership with China and Britain, was making progress. Britain replaced the United States in the project after the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal.
In his meeting with lawmakers on Sunday, Salehi was reported to have said that the developments with the stockpile and the nuclear reactor were not indicative of an intent to produce nuclear weapons.
"We do not intend to produce nuclear weapons because of religious reasons," lawmaker Mehrdad Lahouti quoted Salehi as saying, according to the Iranian Students News Agency.
TENSIONS IN GULF
Elsewhere in the Gulf, Iran's increasingly provocative actions have prompted Britain to send a Royal Navy warship to accompany British-flagged vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
Britain's Ministry of Defense said the HMS Duncan will join the frigate HMS Montrose in the Gulf to defend freedom of navigation until a diplomatic resolution is found to secure the key waterway again.
Oman, which shares the waterway with Iran, said it was in talks with "all parties" to restore stability to the waterway.
"We don't mediate, but in this case we are more concerned than others to ensure the stability of navigation," Foreign Minister Yousef Bin Alawi said after discussions with Iranian officials in Tehran. Oman has close ties with Iran.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard detained the British-flagged Stena Impero this month and is still holding the ship. That move came after U.K. forces seized an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar earlier this month over allegations that the ship was violating sanctions against Syria.
The strait is a vital thoroughfare for the energy industry, accounting for about a third of the world's seaborne oil flows. The U.K. said last week under then-Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt that further measures would be taken to respond to Iran, without giving any details on those plans.
"Freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz is vital not just to the U.K., but also our international partners and allies," Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in the statement. "Merchant ships must be free to travel lawfully and trade safely, anywhere in the world."
The U.K. and Iran are maintaining contacts to try to resolve the situation with the detained vessels. In a letter published Sunday by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, President Hassan Rouhani congratulated Boris Johnson on becoming the U.K. prime minister and said he hoped the diplomatic ties between their countries would be stronger under Johnson's leadership.
Rouhani said he hoped Johnson's "only one visit to Tehran" while serving as U.K. foreign secretary in 2017, and now his tenure as prime minister, will lead to a "further deepening of bilateral and multilateral relations."
In addition, Britain's ambassador to Iran said he had "good and detailed talks" with a senior hard-line lawmaker who leads the Iranian parliament's foreign-affairs committee.
Envoy Robert Macaire said in a tweet that it was "important to keep these channels of discussion open" after meeting with the cleric and lawmaker, Mojtaba Zonnour, in Tehran. Zonnour formerly was Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Information for this article was contributed by Kiyoko Metzler, Kirsten Grieshaber, Amir Vahdat and Sylvia Hui of The Associated Press; by Adam Taylor of The Washington Post; and by Benjamin Katz, Arsalan Shahla and Vivian Nereim of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 07/29/2019
Print Headline: Envoys meet in bid to save nuclear deal