Patrick Wintour – The Guardian
Tensions in the Middle East could pose an existential threat to mankind unless the Iran nuclear deal is maintained, Jeremy Hunt will say on Monday in his starkest warning since the regional crisis escalated two months ago.
Speaking ahead of an EU meeting in Brussels, the UK foreign secretary will try to underline the importance of the deal, which was abandoned unilaterally by the US a year ago, leading to an accelerating reciprocal withdrawal by Iran.
Hunt has tried to de-escalate the situation by saying an Iranian-owned oil tanker seized by the British off Gibraltar 10 days ago might be released if Tehran promised the ship’s owners would abandon plans to unload its oil in Syria. The EU has imposed a ban on oil sales to Syria.
Hunt made the offer in a phone call with the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, on Saturday. But Zarif said afterwards Iran should be entitled to sell oil to any country it wished, and claimed the UK seizure of the ship, Grace 1, was an act of piracy. Various Iranian government sources said the tanker was not bound for Syria, but Tehran is desperate for revenue from oil sales.
Speaking ahead of the EU meeting, Hunt will say: “The Middle East is already one of the most unstable regions in the world, but if the different parties were armed with nuclear weapons it would represent an existential threat to mankind. I will do everything in my power to prevent that from happening.
“I’ll be building on the leadership shown by the UK, alongside France and Germany, as we do what it takes to maintain the nuclear deal, and to work to encourage Iran back into compliance.”
Referring to the detention of Grace 1 in Gibraltar, he is due to add: “As I said to the Iranians this weekend, the detention of the Grace 1 was a Gibraltar-led enforcement of EU Syria sanctions. Action had to be taken, and this was nothing to do with the oil being Iranian.”
France, Germany and the UK – the three European signatories to the nuclear deal – issued another joint statement ahead of today’s EU meeting urging Iran to come back into compliance.
“The risks are such that it is necessary for all stakeholders to pause, and consider the possible consequences of their actions,” the statement said. “We believe that the time has come to act responsibly and to look for ways to stop the escalation of tension and resume dialogue.
“We are concerned by the risk that the nuclear deal further unravels under the strain of sanctions imposed by the United States and following Iran’s decision to no longer implement several of the central provisions of the agreement.”
Iran first breached the nuclear deal by overstepping the agreed limits on its low enriched uranium stockpile and then by breaching the level at which the uranium can be enriched. Neither step in itself puts Iran close to securing a nuclear bomb.
The EU has yet to put the two Iranian decisions into the dispute mechanism of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal signed in 2015 is known, but the EU must be close to doing so.
In a repetition of Tehran’s position, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, said in a televised speech on Sunday: “We have always believed in talks … if they lift sanctions, end the imposed economic pressure and return to the deal.”
Zarif is due to reach New York this week for a meeting at the UN even though a fortnight ago the US said they would be imposing sanctions on him personally, a threat Washington has so far not carried out. It is understood he has been granted a US visa to travel to New York.
Zarif gave no hope of an early release for the British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, saying: “The arrest and trial of these individuals were based on completely legal procedures, and the British government is expected to respect the rule of law and the independence of the Judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”