Iran may stand down on nuclear threat after Europe, China work to bypass US sanctions

The EU's special financial mechanism will allow transactions with Iran.

It's a sign of the Trump administration's isolation on the world stage when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, as it tries to cripple Iran financially and drive it to the negotiating table for a "more comprehensive deal" -- something Iran has said won't happen.

The remaining participants in the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, met for three hours Friday in Vienna, Austria. Iran had vowed that if it did not start to receive financial gain from the nuclear deal by Thursday, it would breach its limits on enriched uranium.

Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to limitations on and inspections of its nuclear program in exchange for lifting most sanctions on the country. But after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord in May 2018, the U.S. has reimposed sanctions, including on Iran's oil exports, and tried to enforce them vigorously. That's scared away European businesses from Iran and caused the country's economy to contract dramatically.

In response, Iran has threatened to enrich more uranium than it is allowed and at higher levels than permitted under the deal, unless Europe can make up the difference.

After the meeting, China's lead envoy emerged from the meeting and said Iran said "loud and clear that they will remain in this agreement... This is very significant, and we applaud that," said China's director-general for arms control Fu Cong.

But Iran's envoy didn't confirm that, calling the meeting "positive and constructive" and "one step forward," but ultimately deferring to his country's leaders on what comes next.

"It is still not enough, and it is still not meeting Iran's expectations. I would certainly report back to Tehran that developments which took place in this meeting, the progresses we made in this meeting, and the final decision obviously would be by Tehran to take," said Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.

Iran appears to putting its plans on hold because Europe is giving it a way to get relief from U.S. sanctions after promising to do so for over a year.

The European Union announced Friday that INSTEX, its mechanism for financial transactions that will bypass U.S. sanctions, is finally operational, and two or three transactions are already being executed, according to Araghchi. Several European countries have already announced that they will join, and perhaps even more important to its success, China also expressed interest Friday.

But in order for Iran to be satisfied, Araghchi added, "Europeans need to buy oil from Iran or to consider credit lines for this mechanism."

That would cross a U.S. line, as the Trump administration tries to bring Iran's oil exports to zero. Oil is Iran's most important export, and tight sanctions on its supplies was one reason it was willing to negotiate under the Obama administration.

But Chinese envoy Fu Cong already said Friday China won't accept those U.S. limits.

Despite U.S. allies openly working around Washington, Trump's top Iran envoy downplayed any differences between the U.S. and Europe.

"We just disagree on the Iran nuclear deal, but we don't disagree on the end state: Iran can never possess a nuclear weapon," said Special Representative Brian Hook in London. He didn't address INSTEX, although he's previously dismissed it and said it won't change most businesses' calculation about entering the Iranian market.

Iran said the U.S. has closed the door to diplomacy with its intense sanctions, but Hook again blamed Iran for not be willing to talk about a new nuclear deal.

"Iran has just rejected diplomacy too many times... We are open to talks, but Iran keeps rejecting this, so we have intensified our sanctions," he added.

ABC New's Somaye Malekian contributed to this report from Tehran and Ben Gittleson from New York.

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