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France, Germany, Britain Request Exemptions From U.S. Iran Sanctions

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire (left) welcomes U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross prior to their meeting in Paris on May 31.

In a letter to top U.S. administration officials, European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran have asked the United States to spare EU firms doing business with Iran from punitive measures.

The foreign and finance ministers of Germany, France, and Britain, as well the European Union foreign-policy chief made the call in a letter, dated June 4, to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The move comes after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal with Iran early last month, and threatened to reinstate trade sanctions on Iran and impose so-called secondary sanctions on companies that kept doing business with it.

European powers are now scrambling to save the agreement, which imposes restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for lifting crippling economic sanctions.

"As allies, we expect that the United States will refrain from taking action to harm Europe's security interests," the European officials said in the letter, which French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire posted on Twitter.

They singled out key areas they want exempted from U.S. punitive measures, including pharmaceuticals, health care, energy, automotive, civil aviation, infrastructure, and banking.

Iran should not be cut out of the SWIFT system for international money transfers, the letter also said.

Several major companies such as France's Total and the Netherlands' Maersk have said it will be impossible to stay in Iran once the sanctions are fully reimposed over the next six months, unless they receive explicit exemptions from Washington.

News of the European initiative comes a day after Iran said it began work on increasing its uranium-enrichment capacity, in case the 2015 accord collapses.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, said on June 5 that the country was developing infrastructure to build advanced centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility.

The agency has informed the UN atomic agency of the move, but said it would remain within the rules of the deal.

A spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the agency received a letter from Iran on June 4 informing it that there was a "tentative schedule to start production of UF6," referring to uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for centrifuges.

Following Iran's announcement, French President Emmanuel Macron called on "everyone to stabilize the situation and not give into this escalation," saying it "would lead to only one thing: conflict."

He said that the Iranian decision to expand its nuclear infrastructure did not constitute grounds for quitting the 2015 agreement.

Iran's announcement "shows that when you decide to unilaterally end an accord it does not encourage the other party to respect it," the French president also said in a blunt rebuke to Trump and his decision to withdraw from the deal.

On June 6, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that Iran's initiative was "unwelcome."

"It is always dangerous to flirt with the red lines, but the initiative taken...remains totally within the framework of the Vienna [nuclear] deal," Le Drian told Europe 1 radio.

However, the minister warned that if Tehran were not to abide by the terms of the deal, then Europe would also be forced to pull out and reimpose sanctions.

The nuclear agreement, aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, sets strict limits on Iran's uranium enrichment. Tehran insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.

With reporting by Reuters
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