The European Union will remain committed to the Iran nuclear deal as long as Tehran continues to adhere to the landmark 2015 accord easing sanctions in exchange for curbs on its atomic program, the EU's top energy official said on May 19.
"We have sent a message to our Iranian friends that as long as they are sticking to the agreement the Europeans will...fulfill their commitment. And they said the same thing on the other side," European Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete said after meeting Iran's nuclear chief in Tehran.
"We will try to intensify our flows of trade that have been very positive for the Iranian economy," Canete added at the joint news conference with Iranian Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who oversees Tehran's nuclear activities.
Canete's remarks came a day after the European Commission (EC) proposed measures to help EU businesses avoid renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran.
In a direct challenge to a U.S. ban on doing business with Iran's oil sector, the commission on May 18 proposed to let EU members make payments for oil directly to Iran's central bank to avoid U.S. penalties.
The step is designed to enable European companies to avoid using the U.S. dollar and U.S. financial system to purchase oil from Tehran, thus bypassing broad U.S. sanctions that have made it difficult for Iran to sell its oil when it was hit with sanctions in the past.
The commission said it was acting on a "green light" given by European Union leaders at a summit in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, on May 17.
In another step, the EC said it had moved to reactivate Europe's blocking statute to shield companies from U.S. sanctions by updating its list of Iranian sanctions that fall within the law's scope.
The statute is aimed at reassuring European firms that invested in Iran under the terms of the nuclear deal, which U.S. President Donald Trump decided to abandon on May 8.
The blocking statute, which originally was created in 1996 to circumvent a U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, "forbids EU companies from complying with the extraterritorial effects of U.S. sanctions," the commission said.
It also "allows companies to recover damages arising from such sanctions from the person causing them, and nullifies the effect in the EU of any foreign court judgements based on them," it said.
‘Strong Signalling Value’
The commission said its goal was for the blocking law to go into effect before August 6, when the first batch of reimposed U.S. sanctions takes effect.
Its revisions of the statute must be endorsed by the 28 EU member states and the European Parliament before going into effect.
"This has a strong signaling value, it can be very useful to companies, but it is ultimately a business decision for each company to make" whether to continue investing in Iran, an EU official said.
Salehi told the May 19 joint news conference that Canete had pledged to save the accord between Iran and major world powers despite Trump's decision to exit the deal and reimpose sanctions.
“We hope their efforts materialize,” Salehi said, accusing the United States of being “not a trustworthy country in international dealings.”
Salehi said that, if the EU fails to save the accord, Tehran could respond with a resumption of its 20-percent uranium enrichment.
"If the other side keeps itself committed to its promises, we also will be keeping ourselves to our promises....We hope the situation will not arise to the point that we will have to go back to the worst option," Salehi told reporters in English, Reuters reported.
Under the deal, Iran must keep its level of enrichment at around 3.6 percent. High-level enrichment of uranium -- 20 percent or more -- would take Tehran close to the level needed for a nuclear weapon.
Salehi said in August that Iran would need only five days to resume high-level uranium enrichment.
Despite the EU’s efforts to shield its businesses, Total, Allianz, and a growing list of other European companies have announced that they will pull out of Iran unless they get explicit sanctions waivers from the United States.
They were joined on May 18 by French gas and power group Engie, Polish gas firm PGNiG, and German lender DZ Bank.
In another step, the European Commission also moved to remove hurdles for the European Investment Bank to finance activities outside the EU, such as in Iran.
It said the move would allow the bank to "support EU investment in Iran," particularly involving small and medium-sized companies.
The commission also called for doing more to help Iran's energy sector and small and medium-sized companies, as part of "confidence-building measures."
EU investment in Iran -- mainly from Germany, France and Italy -- has jumped to more than 20 billion euros since sanctions were eased in 2016, with projects ranging from aerospace to energy ventures.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters