BRUSSELS (Dispatches) -- European powers vowed to keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive without the United States by trying to keep Iran’s oil and investment flowing, but made no commitment on providing the guarantees Tehran seeks.
British, French and German foreign ministers, along with the EU’s top diplomat, discussed the next steps with their Iranian counterpart, a week after U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the pact he branded "the worst deal ever” and reimposed U.S. sanctions on Iran.
"We all agreed that we have a relative in intensive care and we all want to get him or her out of intensive care as quickly as possible,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters after the 90-minute meeting.
She said all sides had agreed to find practical solutions over the coming weeks. Those included continuing to sell Iran’s oil and gas products, maintaining effective banking transactions and protecting European investments in Iran.
"I cannot talk about legal or economic guarantees but I can talk about serious, determined, immediate work from the European side,” Mogherini said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the meeting had been a good start, but he wanted to see guarantees materialize. "We are on the right track ... a lot will depend on what we can do in next few weeks,” he said.
Highlighting just how difficult it will be, the U.S. Treasury announced on Tuesday more sanctions, including on Iran’s central bank governor, just minutes before the Brussels meeting was due to begin.
Zarif said the latest U.S. decision was "illegal”.
Britain’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson was blunt about the chances of avoiding U.S. sanctions that also seek to prohibit foreign companies from doing business with Iran.
"We have to be realistic about the electrified rail, the live wire of American extraterritoriality and how (it) can serve as a deterrent to business,” Johnson told reporters.
The Europeans and Iranians have now tasked experts to come up with measures quickly and will meet again in Vienna next week at a deputy foreign minister level.
Measures could include retaliatory sanctions, allowing the European Investment Bank to invest in Iran and coordinating euro-denominated credit lines from European governments.
European commissioners were to discuss sanctions-blocking measures on Wednesday, opening the way for European leaders to discuss the issue at a summit in Sofia later that day.
While the focus of Tuesday’s talks was on salvaging the nuclear deal, EU diplomats said they needed some time to clarify the U.S. policy on sanctions, but also generally towards Iran.
"One of the questions that we need to ask the Americans is whether their final objective is to make the Iranians yield on its nuclear program or to get rid of the regime,” said a senior French official, acknowledging that Paris was concerned by the ideological shift in Washington since John Bolton was appointed White House national security adviser.
Bolton in the past has suggested the U.S. government should push for a change in government in Iran. Johnson said government change in Iran was not a policy Britain should pursue.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the best way to address concern about Iran's role in the region and its ballistic missile program is within the framework of the nuclear deal, even after the United States pulled out.
"The question is whether you can talk better if you terminate an agreement or if you stay in it ... we say you can talk better if you remain in it," Merkel told lawmakers in the Bundestag lower house of parliament on Wednesday.
The European ministers also brought up in the talks their "concerns” over Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional activities, diplomats said. But senior Iranian official Ali Akbar Velayati said in Tehran that Iran’s defensive missile program was not negotiable.
European diplomats acknowledged that the EU support, however sincere, risked looking hollow after Trump reimposed an array of wide sanctions last week on Iran that will hit European companies investing there.
"Let’s not fool ourselves that there are dozens of things we can do,” said a senior European diplomat. "We don’t have much to threaten the Americans.”
President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday Iran will not surrender to U.S. pressures, a day after Washington imposed new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
"They think they can make the Iranian nation surrender by putting pressures on Iran, by sanctions and even threats of war... The Iranian nation will resist against the U.S. plots," Rouhani was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.
Rouhani also said Trump expected Tehran to leave the nuclear deal after the U.S. withdrawal. "Trump played his first card, but miscalculated the second move... as Iran did not follow that plan,” he said.