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Iran sets 31 May deadline for Europeans to salvage nuclear deal

Iran wants European powers to present it with measures by the end of May to compensate it for the United States abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal, a senior official said today, and Tehran would decide within weeks whether to quit the accord.

The 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers lifted international sanctions on Tehran in return for it agreeing to curb its nuclear programme.

Since President Donald Trump pulled the United States out last month, European powers have been trying to find a way to ensure Iran still receives economic benefits to persuade it to stay in the deal. But that has proven difficult, with European firms frightened away by US sanctions.

Nations that remain in the agreement meet today for the first time since Trump left the pact, but diplomats see limited scope for salvaging it. British, Chinese, French, German and Russian officials will try to flesh out with Iran's deputy foreign minister a strategy to save the deal by keeping oil and investment flowing.

"I am personally maybe not optimistic but … I am trying my best to come to a conclusion," a senior Iranian official told reporters ahead of the talks.

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EU leaders have united behind the accord, with Brussels working on measures including banning EU-based firms from complying with reimposed US sanctions and urging governments to make money transfers to Iran's central bank to avoid fines.

"We expect the [economic] package to be given to us by the end of May," the Iranian official said. "I'm sorry to say that we haven't [seen] the Plan B yet. The Plan B has just started to be figured out."

He said European measures would need to ensure that oil exports did not halt, and that Iran would still have access to the SWIFT international bank payments messaging system.

Washington has threatened not only to reimpose sanctions but to make them even tighter. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday threatened Iran with "the strongest sanctions in history" if it did not change its behaviour in the Middle East.

Iran's supreme leader set out conditions on Wednesday for Iran to stay in the deal: unless Europe guarantees Iran's oil sales will not be hurt, Tehran would resume enrichment of nuclear material. He also rejected any new negotiations over Iran's missile programme, which was not covered in the nuclear deal and which Iran says it will never give up.

The Iranian official said today: "We don't have enough time. We expect the [meeting] today to take a unified position against the withdrawal of the United States and compensate for the US absence in the deal."

The US Treasury announced more sanctions on Thursday on several Iranian and Turkish in a move targeting four Iranian airlines.

Iran has struggled to benefit from the accord so far, partly because of remaining unilateral US sanctions that have deterred major Western investors from doing business with Tehran. Some Western companies have already quit Iran or said they may have to leave because of the new US sanctions.

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