Trump Says Progress Made With Iran, as Tehran Threatens Further Nuke Deal Breaches

U.S. president says he wasn't looking for regime change, while Pompeo says administration prepared to negotiate missile program

U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a Cabinet meeting at the White House on July 16, 2019.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday a lot of progress had been made with Iran and that he was not looking for regime change in Iran, as Tehran ups the ante in a volatile stand-off, warning it would continue removing restraints on its nuclear program and retaliate for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker.

Trump, who made the remarks at a Cabinet meeting in the White House, did not give details about the progress, but U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the meeting Iran had said it was prepared to negotiate about its missile program. 

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Tensions have spiked since Trump last year abandoned world powers' 2015 nuclear deal with Iran under which it agreed to curtail its enrichment of uranium in return for the lifting of global sanctions crippling its economy.

European parties to the pact decided Monday not to trigger the deal's dispute mechanism in favor of pursuing more talks and avert any U.S.-Iranian military conflict, but took no action to shield Iran against a sanctions clampdown by Trump.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's ultimate authority, accused Britain, Germany and France of failing to uphold obligations under the deal to restore Iranian access to global trade, especially for Tehran's oil exports blocked by U.S. sanctions.

"According to our foreign minister, Europe made 11 commitments, none of which they abided by. We abided by our commitments and even beyond them. Now that we've begun to reduce our commitments, they oppose it. How insolent! You didn't abide by your commitments!" Khamenei said, according to his website.

"We have started to reduce our commitments and this trend shall continue," Khamenei said in remarks carried by state television.

Impasse

He has previously upbraided European powers for not standing up to Trump and circumventing his sanctions noose. Russia and China are also parties to the accord.

But it was the first time Khamenei explicitly pledged to press ahead with breaches of the nuclear deal, spurning European appeals to Iran to restore limits on enrichment aimed at obviating any dash to development of atomic bombs.

"So far, efforts to win gestures from Iran to de-escalate the crisis are not succeeding (as) Tehran is demanding the lifting of sanctions on its oil and banking sectors first," a European diplomatic source told Reuters.

Iran denies any intent to acquire nuclear weapons, and has said all its breaches could be reversed if Washington returned to the deal and its economic dividends were realized. Tehran has accused Washington of waging "economic war."

"Western governments' major vice is their arrogance," Khamenei said. "If the country opposing them is a weak one, their arrogance works. But if it's a country that knows and stands up against them, they will be defeated."

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors last week confirmed Iran is now enriching uranium to 4.5 percent fissile purity, above the 3.67 percent limit set by its deal, the second breach in as many weeks after Tehran exceeded limits on its stock of low-enriched uranium.

The level at which Iran is now refining uranium is still well below the 20 percent purity of enrichment Iran reached before the deal, and the 90 percent needed to yield bomb-grade nuclear fuel. Low-enriched uranium provides fuel for civilian power plants.

European Union foreign ministers, in a meeting on Monday, deemed Iran's violations not to be "significant."

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Monday Iran remained "a good year away from developing a nuclear bomb," adding there was still a "small window to keep the deal alive."

The Europeans are trying to set up Instex, a barter-based trade conduit with Iran but it would initially deal only in items not subject to U.S. sanctions such as pharmaceuticals and foods. Iran has said Instex must include oil sales or provide substantial credit facilities for it to be beneficial.

'Piracy'

Khamenei also said Iran would respond to Britain's "piracy" over the seizure in early July of an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar.

"Evil Britain commits piracy and steals our ship ... and gives it a legal appearance. The Islamic Republic...will not leave this wickedness unanswered and will respond to it at an appropriate time and place," Khamenei said.

Following his remarks, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said an escalation of tensions between Western states and Iran was in no one's interest. "...We have repeatedly stressed that to the Iranians," the spokesman said.

Iran has called on Britain to immediately release its oil tanker, which was detained by British Royal Marines on the suspicion that it was breaking European sanctions by taking oil to Tehran's close ally Syria.

The affair has stoked tension in the Gulf, with Britain saying on July 11 that it had fended off Iranian ships that tried to block a British tanker heading through the area.

Later on Tuesday, Britain said it would send a third warship - a frigate - to the Gulf, although it denied the move was related to the current Iran crisis.

Maximum U.S. Pressure

Washington says it is applying "maximum pressure" on Iran to agree stricter limits on its nuclear capacity, curb its ballistic missile program and end support for proxy forces in a Middle East power struggle with U.S.-backed Gulf Arabs.

Fears of direct U.S.-Iranian conflict have risen since May with several attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, Iran's downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, and a plan for U.S. air strikes on Iran last month that Trump aborted at the last minute.

In what loomed as another obstacle to trouble-shooting diplomacy, Iran confirmed on Tuesday it had detained French-Iranian scholar Fariba Adelkhah but declined to elaborate, a day after Paris demanded information on her case.