BRUSSELS (AP) — Major European powers sought Tuesday to keep Iran committed to a deal to prevent it from building a nuclear bomb despite deep misgivings about Tehran's Middle East politics and President Donald Trump's vehement opposition.
The U.S. already pulled out of the pact of the major global powers with Iran and promised tough economic sanctions that could hurt companies in the European Union as well. Instead, the EU nations sought to show Iran on Tuesday they stand by diplomatic commitments.
It left EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and the foreign ministers from Britain, France and Germany — signatories of the 2015 deal to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons — with their backs against the wall as they prepared for a dinner meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
But the EU officials were hopeful that diplomacy and the promise of economic benefits could keep Iran in the fold of a nuclear deal they see as essential to security.
"We will be looking at a package of measures we may be able to devise as Europeans to encourage Iran to stay in," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said. "We will look at potential options for supporting continued sanctions relief for Iran to ensure we meet our commitments under the deal."
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that "it won't be easy, that's clear to all of us. But if we want to stay in this agreement and ensure that Iran stays in this agreement and abides to the terms of the agreement, then we need to talk about this."
Zarif seemed open to the European stance and said he had a "very good and constructive" initial one-on-one with Mogherini. After an hour-long meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, Zarif said he believed both sides were "on the right track" to make sure that the interests of Iran and the non-U.S. partners "will be preserved and guaranteed."
All wanted to show they weren't gullible and wouldn't drop other divisive issues with Tehran, including its role in the Syria conflict.
"I want to stress we are under no illusion about the stuff Iran gets up to in the region, in the Middle East. We have no illusions about Iran's disruptive behavior but we think we can tackle those in other ways," Johnson said.
Not only has Trump's walkout of the deal imperiled its future, the threat of sanctions could also trickle down to European companies doing business with Iran and further hurt trans-Atlantic ties.
"We have to accept, be realistic about the electrified rail, the live wire of American extraterritoriality and how that can serve as a deterrent to businesses," Johnson said.
The European Commission has been examining measures to counter the introduction of any U.S. sanctions that might harm European businesses and is expected to unveil them to EU leaders at a summit in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Wednesday.
Among them is the possible use of an EU "blocking regulation" which would, in essence, ban European companies from respecting American sanctions where those sanctions might damage EU interests, notably trade and the movement of capital.
The regulation, which has been brandished as a threat in the past but never actually used, was drawn up more than 20 years ago and would have to be revised.
It is unclear how well the measure could be enforced, given that big multinationals are likely to be doing more business in the U.S. than they are in Iran and may be unwilling to compromise that market access.
The EU's energy commissioner is also traveling this week to Iran to discuss strengthening European energy support to Iran.
Jill Lawless in London, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Frank Jordans in Berlin, contributed to this report.