Britain was scrambling with key European allies to keep alive the Iran nuclear deal amid fears of a new confrontation in the region following the dramatic withdrawal of the United States from the agreement.
Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said there was a need to de-escalate tensions in the wake of President Donald Trump’s warning that he was ready to impose the “highest level” of sanctions on Tehran.
President Hassan Rouhani responded with a warning of his own that Iran could restart enriching uranium – a key element of a nuclear weapons programme – “without any limitations” within a matter of weeks.
The speaker of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani said there was now a window in which the EU could demonstrate whether it had the international clout to keep the agreement going.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian insisted the deal was not dead and said the Europeans were prepared to work towards a wider accord which would address Mr Trump’s concerns.
But with tensions already running high between Iran and Israel, he said the risks of a confrontation in the region were real.
Mr Burt sought to play down suggestions that the US was ready to launch an attack on Iran – possibly using “proxies” such as the Israelis or the Saudis, who also remain highly suspicious of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
“We have no indication of anything like that,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
.@POTUS Trump to the long-suffering people of #Iran: The people of America stand with you. The future of Iran belongs to its people. They deserve a nation that does justice to their dreams. #JCPOA pic.twitter.com/MMeIpZEG8p— Department of State (@StateDept) May 8, 2018
Mr Burt acknowledged however that the president’s decision – despite appeals from Theresa May, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel not to abandon the accord – had shown the limits of European influence in Washington.
“On this issue he has not listened. That is absolutely correct. But now we have got to seek to persuade him and others there other ways of tackling the challenges he has set out,” he said.
“We won’t be seeking to make him go back on something. He won’t do that.
“But there are other ways forward and it is our job to make sure those other ways work and work in a non-confrontational fashion, no matter how difficult that is in a tricky region.”
Mr Le Drian said he and his British and German counterparts would be meeting with Iranian representatives on Monday to discuss the next steps.
Mr Trump’s announcement provoked angry scenes in the Iranian parliament where lawmakers set fire to a paper US flag and chanted “Death to America!”
Speaking in the White House on Tuesday, the president described the agreement – seen as the key diplomatic legacy of his predecessor Barack Obama – as a “great embarrassment” which had left Iran on the brink of acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“The Iran deal is defective at its core,” he said. “If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen.
“In just a short period of time, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapon.”
France, Germany, and the UK regret the U.S. decision to leave the JCPOA. The nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake.— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) May 8, 2018
In a joint statement, Mrs May, Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron said they remained committed to the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
They said: “It is with regret and concern that we, the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom, take note of President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States of America from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“Together, we emphasise our continuing commitment to the JCPOA. This agreement remains important for our shared security.”
They added: “We encourage Iran to show restraint in response to the decision by the US; Iran must continue to meet its own obligations under the deal, co-operating fully and in a timely manner with IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency) inspection requirements.”
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed by the US, China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain with Iran in 2015.
Under its terms, Iran agreed to scale back key elements of its nuclear energy programme associated with the development of a nuclear weapon in return for the easing of economic sanctions.