Iran’s foreign minister has warned the United States that it “cannot expect to stay safe” after starting what he called an “economic war” against his country.
Mohammad Javad Zarif made the comments on Monday during a joint press conference with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, who was visiting Tehran in an attempt to defuse regional tensions.
Friction between Tehran and Washington ratcheted up last month, a year after US President Donald Trump‘s decision to pull Washington out of a 2015 nuclear deal brokered between Iran and world powers and reimpose sweeping sanctions on Tehran.
Under the deal, which was signed in Vienna by the US, France, Britain, Germany, China, Russia and Iran, the Islamic Republic agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
The sanctions bar Iran from accessing the US financial system or trading in US dollars.
“Mr Trump himself has announced that the US has launched an economic war against Iran,” Zarif told reporters, speaking alongside Maas. “The only solution for reducing tensions in this region is stopping that economic war.”
He also warned: “Whoever starts a war with us will not be the one who finishes it”.
Since its unilateral withdrawal, the Trump administration has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which it accuses of being a destabilising actor in the Middle East. In recent weeks, it has also sent additional military forces to the Middle East, including an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and Patriot missiles, in response to unspecified Iranian threats to US troops and interests in the region.
Describing his talks with Maas as “frank and serious”, Zarif said Germany and the European Union could have an “important role” to play in defusing the situation and noted that “Tehran will cooperate with EU signatories of the deal to save it”.
For his part, Maas said that Germany, France and Britain were doing their “utmost to prevent the failure of the deal”, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“We won’t be able to do miracles, but we are trying as best as we can to do prevent its failure,” Maas said.
The other signatories to the deal, China and Russia, have stated their desire to keep the JCPOA alive.
Saad Jawad, a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre, said Tehran expected the remaining signatories to the deal to work harder to salvage it.
“Iran thinks that because the Europeans were signatories to the original 2015 agreement, that they should do everything in their power to erase all the sanctions imposed by the United States, or at least avoid them, because Iran has not harmed or gone against the agreement,” he told Al Jazeera.
INSTEX ready soon?
In an effort to protect at least some of Iran’s economy and keep the nuclear deal alive, France, Britain and Germany set up a special-purpose vehicle for facilitating non-dollar trade with Iran.
The three EU members maintain the nuclear pact remains the best way to limit Iran’s enrichment of uranium, a potential pathway to the development of nuclear weapons, and have been trying to get Tehran to keep to its commitments under the deal.
Maas said the payment system, known as INSTEX, (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) should soon be operational after months of work.
“This is an instrument of a new kind so it’s not straightforward to operationalise it,” he said, pointing to the complexity of trying to install a totally new payment system.
“But all the formal requirements are in place now, and so I’m assuming we’ll be ready to use it in the foreseeable future,” added Mass about the system for barter-based trade with Iran.
Iran has given Europe, China and Russia until July “to make their commitments operational”.
Otherwise, Tehran said it would stop complying with the nuclear deal’s uranium enrichment restrictions and resume building a heavy-water reactor at Arak that was shut down as part of the deal. It has already scaled back some commitments under the 2015 deal.
Iran has always maintained its nuclear activity is peaceful and refuses to put its missile and military capabilities on the negotiating table, something the Trump administration has demanded.
Tehran is the stage for a flurry of diplomatic activity this week, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scheduled to arrive on Wednesday, hoping to ease the tensions.
Japan wants to lower the temperature, officials say, with Abe winning Trump’s blessing for the mediation trip when the US president visited Tokyo last month.
The UN’s atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said on Monday that Iran had followed through on a pledge to accelerate its production of enriched uranium.
IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, whose agency is responsible for monitoring Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, said Iran was now producing more enriched uranium than before, but it was not clear when it might reach stockpile limits set in the pact.
Iran said last month that it was still abiding by the deal but that it would quadruple its production of enriched uranium.
When asked, Amano declined to say how much it had increased production by.