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German foreign minister lands in Iran in bid to save nuclear agreement

Visit is part of effort to preserve Iran's nuclear pact with world powers and defuse rising US-Iranian tensions; Japan's Abe to follow
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in glass elevator in Berlin last week (AFP)

Germany's foreign minister arrived in Tehran on Sunday to hold talks the next day with President Hassan Rouhani as part of a concerted Western effort to preserve Iran's nuclear pact with world powers and defuse rising US-Iranian tensions.

Germany's visiting Foreign Minister Heiko Mass will be followed on Wednesday by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

A cautious thaw in relations between Tehran and Washington set-in, in 2015 when Iran struck a deal with six big powers limiting its nuclear activity. But tensions with the US have mounted since President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sweeping sanctions.

West European signatories, including Germany, want to try to keep the nuclear accord alive, although they share the Trump administration's disquiet about Iran's ballistic missile programme and its role in conflicts in the Middle East, Reuters said.

Still, Iranian leaders are thus far rebuffing European calls for talks related to ballistic missiles and other controversies, according to the Washington Examiner.

Germany, France and Britain maintain that the nuclear pact remains the best way to limit Iran's enrichment of uranium, a potential pathway to the development of nuclear weapons.

A German diplomatic source confirmed that Maas would meet both his counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif and Rouhani on Monday.

Maas warned during a stopover in Iraq en route to Tehran about the dangers of any conflict with Iran, and said the Europeans were convinced it was worth trying to keep the nuclear agreement intact.

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Maas also said it was important to stop any military confrontation in the Gulf, the Associated Press reported. "We want to avoid any misunderstandings that would lead to automatic reactions that could lead to violence. … All those involved bear responsibility to absolutely avoid a spiral of escalation and this is a view I will also express very clearly tomorrow, on the opposite shores of the Gulf."

Maas told reporters: "We cannot just seek dialogue, we must lead it, precisely where the differences seem insurmountable and long-simmering conflicts run deep," according to the Washington Examiner.

In Abu Dhabi, he also sounded a warning to Iran.

"We are not prepared to have a discussion on 'less for less'," Maas told reporters, referring to Iran's decision to reciprocate for the reimposition of sanctions.

Last month, Iran scaled back some commitments under the 2015 deal and warned that in 60 days it would resume refining uranium to a higher fissile degree than that permitted by the accord if Europe failed to shield its trade from US sanctions.

Maas also said that he would stress his concerns about Iranian activity in Syria and Yemen.

"However, we think that this should take place as part of a dialogue," he said, adding he did not think the US strategy of “maximum pressure” and threats were helpful.

Washington has sent more military forces to the Middle East, including an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and Patriot missiles, in a show of force against what US officials call Iranian threats to its troops and interests in the region.

Iran has always said its nuclear activity is peaceful and has thus far refused to put its missile and military capabilities on the negotiating table as the Trump administration has demanded.

High-stakes diplomacy

Japan’s premiere Abe will then arrive in Tehran on Wednesday after meeting earlier with US President Donald Trump, the Associated Press said.

Abe will stay through Friday, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono is expected to travel to Tehran before Abe’s arrival to meet Iranian counterpart Zarif.

What Abe will be able to accomplish is unclear, but the prime minister, whose nation relies heavily on Mideast crude oil to power its economy, already has acknowledged the challenge.

“Between Japan and the United States, there should be close collaboration so that this tension surrounding Iran should be mitigated and alleviated, and it shouldn’t culminate in armed conflict,” Abe said in a May news conference with Trump in Tokyo, according to AP.