President Emmanuel Macron and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani talked on the phone for two hours. Paris continued its diplomatic initiative to save the future of Tehran’s nuclear agreement with the West. The deal was in jeopardy since the US withdrawal last year. The Iranian government said that Iran and France came closer in their views after negotiations between the presidents of the countries.

“Fortunately the points of views have become closer on many issues and now technical discussions are being held on ways to carry out the Europeans’ commitments”, – said the Iranian government spokesman, Ali Rabiei.

The deal was brokered in 2015 and included Iran agreeing to limit its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of economic sanctions, in particular on oil exports. But after Donald Trump withdrew the US and reimposed sanctions, Tehran increased its uranium enrichment and stockpiles and threatened further breaches of the agreement.

Macron has reportedly been trying to launch a $15bn credit line to pre-purchase Iran’s oil, but it is not clear if the US would allow such a move or sanction any company or country that sought to buy Iranian oil.

In pulling out of the nuclear deal last year, the US vowed to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero to pressure Tehran into renegotiating the deal struck with Barack Obama. Tehran is unlikely to settle for any deal that does not allow it to export a minimum 700,000 barrels a day. Current sales have fallen to 300,000 a day.

Trump has been unclear how he would renegotiate the nuclear deal, and it is likely Macron is proposing a three-stage process involving commitments by both sides that ends with an extended nuclear deal, and wider pledges. The French president has the conditional backing of the UK and Germany for his efforts.

French diplomats are meeting the Iranian deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, in Paris on Monday to discuss outlines of the deal. France has said its objective is “to have a sequence where there are commitments on both sides.”

The talks are being held against the backdrop of an Iranian threat to take a third as yet unspecified step away from the nuclear deal as early as Thursday or Friday. Tehran said this planned third reversible step would be outlined in the middle of this week. The announcement is likely to coincide with a visit to the UK by the US vice-president, Mike Pence.

The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on Friday gave an update on Iran’s two previous steps away from the deal. It announced that just over 10% of Iran’s uranium stockpile was now enriched up to 4.5%, above the 3.67% limit stipulated in the 2015 deal.

It also said Iran’s total stockpile of uranium, which under the accord, should be no more than the equivalent of 300kg of uranium hexafluoride, now stood at roughly 360kg.

In a sign of the scale of Macron’s diplomatic ambition, the French president spoke to Rouhani about the need to end the conflict in Yemen where the US has accused Tehran of trying to use the Houthi rebellion to seize de facto power, and so weaken Saudi Arabia.

The US has insisted the nuclear deal can only be revived if Iran renegotiates the terms of the accord, gives wider undertakings about ending its “regional aggression” and curtails its ballistic missile programme.

Trump has blown hot and cold about a summit with Rouhani, and faces conflicting advice from within his own administration. Israel and Saudi Arabia are both implacable foes of any compromise with Iran. The Iranian government spokesman on Monday suggested Rouhani could meet Trump if it served Iran’s interests, while cautioning there was no need to meet an “agitator” in the current circumstances.

Tags: ; ;