NEW YORK – The leaders of Britain, France and Germany joined the U.S. in blaming Iran for this month’s attacks on Saudi Arabia. They said the time had come for Tehran to start talks on a new, long-term agreement dealing with its nuclear, regional and missile activities.
In a joint statement on Monday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, along with President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, said they continue to support the 2015 Iran nuclear deal but said the time has come for Iran to start talks on a longer-term, more comprehensive agreement, as Washington has urged.
While the statement marks a significant shift on Iran by Europe’s powers, those nations are still far from endorsing all of Washington’s demands for a new agreement. The statement also didn’t suggest that Europe is prepared to follow Washington in tightening economic pressure on Iran.
President Trump said he welcomed moves for a broader agreement.
“Let’s do a better deal” with Iran, Mr. Johnson told NBC, making him the first European leader to suggest the 2015 nuclear pact could be reworked. “I think there’s one guy who can do a better deal…and that is the president of the United States. I hope there will be a Trump deal,” the prime minister added, while calling the president a “very, very brilliant negotiator.”
The Europeans’ push for broader talks came amid growing fears that tensions in the Persian Gulf could quickly escalate following the alleged Iranian attack on Sept. 14 on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. That could lead to a cutoff in oil supplies and even a major war in the region.
Iran has denied responsibility for the attack
“It is clear that we need to re-establish deterrence,” said Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, in an appearance at the Asia Society in New York. “We are one missile strike away from a regional war.”
One of the cruise missiles fell short of the Saudi oil facilities, other U.S. officials disclosed, and its guidance and electronic systems are being examined as the U.S. seeks to reconstruct its flight path.
Iran has denied responsibility for the attack. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Monday on Twitter that the three European powers should muster the political will to forge “an independent path” instead of “parroting absurd U.S. claims” and making demands that are inconsistent with the nuclear deal.
There is no indication that Mr. Trump’s administration is planning in the near future to detail in public its evidence for blaming Iran. But the European statement makes clear that the countries are persuaded of Iran’s role, and U.S. officials seem confident that their conclusions will be borne out by U.N. investigators. France has sent experts to Saudi Arabia to investigate the attack.
European officials acknowledged they shared information in reaching their own separate conclusions on Iran’s involvement but didn’t provide details.
The prime minister’s remarks come as the U.K. is looking to deepen ties with Washington while navigating an acrimonious exit from the European Union.
United Nations General Assembly in New York
Speaking to Sky News during his trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Mr. Johnson said the international community faced tough questions over how to respond “to what the Iranians plainly did in blowing up those Saudi Arabian oil fields.”
British officials later said the U.K. continues to support the 2015 nuclear deal. A government spokesman said that with Iran currently not complying with some of the nuclear pact’s limits, the U.K. was open to different ways to bring Tehran back into line.
Until now, the European Union and its three biggest member states, Britain, France and Germany, have strongly defended the 2015 deal, which lifted most international sanctions on Iran in exchange for strict but temporary limits on its nuclear activities.
However, France has been in talks with Iran and the U.S. about ways of de-escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington. The French have been working up proposals, so far rejected by Washington, that would see the U.S. ease sanctions in return for Iran’s full compliance with the deal and possibly other concessions.
France has in the past called for a supplemental agreement that would build on the 2015 nuclear deal and more permanently shut off Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.
Iran Defiant Over Nuclear Pact
Iran has rejected any such changes to the nuclear pact and there could be major differences between the Europeans and Washington over what Iran should be offered to induce Tehran to consider such a proposal.
European countries in the past have condemned renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran, warning they threatened to drive Tehran away from the deal.
Iranian leaders have said they won’t hold talks with Washington until the U.S. drops its renewed sanctions. It has threatened to take fresh steps away from the nuclear deal in November.
Mr. Macron was meeting with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on Monday night.
The Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal in May 2018, with Mr. Trump saying the accord failed to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon in the future and didn’t press Iran to curtail its ballistic-missile tests or its aggressive behavior in the region. Washington has since imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran.
“We seek comprehensive negotiations that are truly comprehensive,” Mr. Hook said. “This includes the nuclear file but also Iran’s role in the region, its missile development, support for terrorism, and wrongful detention of dual and foreign nationals, including many American citizens.”
Back-Channel talks between U.S. and Iran
In his appearance at the Asia Society, Mr. Hook reiterated that Mr. Trump’s administration was open to diplomacy with Tehran. However, he confirmed there are currently no back-channel talks between U.S. and Iranian officials.
He said the administration would continue to step up the economic pressure on Iran to meet its demands while expressing concern that Iran might again mount attacks against U.S. allies in the region.
Mr. Hook said the range and sophistication of the weapons used in the Saudi attack went beyond the capabilities of the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and confirmed that none of the drones or cruise missiles used in the strike were fired from Iraqi territory.
U.S. officials have asserted that all of the drones and cruise missiles used in the attack were launched from Iranian territory.
The comprehensive approach sketched out by Mr. Hook would end Iran’s support for militant groups in the region, constrain its missile program, end “hostage-taking” or the detention of U.S. and other Western citizens and impose more stringent nuclear curbs than the 2015 accord.