Foreign ministers from European powers and the United States were holding talks yesterday exploring ways to revive the 2015 deal on Iran's nuclear drive, days ahead of a deadline set by Tehran that could pose a new obstacle.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian hosted his German and British counterparts in Paris, with America's new Secretary of State Antony Blinken joining via videoconference.
The foreign ministers expressed their "shared fundamental security interest in upholding the nuclear non-proliferation regime" for Iran, Britain said in a statement. "Regarding Iran, the E3 and the United States expressed their shared fundamental security interest in upholding the nuclear non-proliferation regime and ensuring that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon," it added.
Analysts say only a small window of opportunity remains to save the deal, which received a near-fatal blow when former US president Donald Trump walked out of the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran.
Tehran retaliated by stepping up nuclear work in violation of the accord.
"The recent steps of Iran are not helpful at all, they endanger the return of the Americans" to the deal, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Paris.
"Apparently Iran is not interested in easing the tensions, but in escalation. They are playing with fire," he said.
The administration of US President Joe Biden has said it is prepared to rejoin the deal and start lifting sanctions if Iran -- whose economy has been devastated -- returns to full compliance.
But Tehran rejected this precondition, pressing on with increasing nuclear work in retaliation for Trump's so-called "maximum pressure" sanctions policy to weaken the Iranian regime which has had no relations with Washington for four decades.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in Vienna in 2015, was based on Iran providing safeguards that it would not make an atomic bomb, in exchange for a gradual easing of international sanctions.
The diplomacy is expected to be hugely delicate and could be further derailed by the deadline set under a bill adopted by the Iranian parliament in December following the killing of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which Tehran blamed on Israel.
Iran would restrict some UN nuclear agency inspections by February 21 if the US does not lift the sanctions imposed since 2018.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi is to travel to Tehran on Saturday for talks with the Iranian authorities to find a solution for continuing inspections in the country, the agency said.
The IAEA said last week that Iran had started producing uranium metal in a new violation of the accord, intensifying concerns it was becoming closer to having the capacity to make a nuclear weapon.