PARIS: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Friday (Aug 23) that suggestions by French President Emmanuel Macron about defusing the crisis over Iran's nuclear drive went in the right direction, but that more work needed to be done.
"President Macron made some suggestions last week to President (Hassan) Rouhani and we believe they are moving in the right direction, although we are not definitely there yet," Zarif told Agence France-Presse (AFP) in an interview after meeting Macron for rare talks in Paris.
"We had a good discussion today," Zarif said.
"We discussed possibilities. He (Macron) is now going to discuss with European partners and other partners to see where we can go from here," Zarif added.
The talks came one day before Macron begins hosting world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, for the three-day Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, with the Iranian nuclear programme set to be a central issue.
Tensions over Iran's nuclear programme have spiralled in the last months after Tehran ramped up its atomic activities in response to the abrupt US pullout last year from the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran wants to see greater relief from the harsh sanctions re-imposed by Washington that are increasingly biting its economy, and, according to Zarif, are causing the Iranian people "tremendous stress".
'US DOESN'T HOLD ALL CARDS'
Zarif reaffirmed that if Tehran believed Europe could begin to fulfil its side of the bargain on the nuclear deal, Iran could then reverse the measures it took to ramp up the nuclear programme.
"Once Europe starts implementing its commitments, Iran will also be prepared to reverse the steps that it has taken," Zarif said.
Pressed on what the suggestions involved, Zarif did not give specifics but said Europe needed to find ways to ease the situation for Iran even with the US no longer part of the deal.
France, Germany and Britain have set up a mechanism called INSTEX that aims to facilitate continued trade with Iran despite the US sanctions, but it has yet to provide significant benefits.
"We are searching for ways Europe can in fact implement its commitments so that we can reverse the steps we have taken," he said.
"For us, what is important is to be able to continue to conduct business with the European Union," he said.
What is being discussed is how this can be done "with or without the US", he added.
In a message to Europe, Zarif said that it was possible to solve the issue even without the involvement of the United States in the nuclear deal.
"I do not think the US holds all the cards. If Europe and the international community decide to do so, they can in fact take measures required to sustain the deal," he said.
The 2015 nuclear deal was seen as a signature foreign policy achievement of president Barack Obama and a landmark moment in ties between United States and Iran, after relations were severed in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the pro-West Shah.
But to the dismay of Washington's European allies, Trump walked out of the deal last year and tensions have intensified since, raising fears among some observers of a looming military confrontation.
'ACCIDENTS AND INCIDENTS'
One issue of particular tension in recent weeks has been freedom of navigation after Iran seized three foreign ships in the Gulf, including the British-flagged Stena Impero, while an Iranian tanker was held by Gibraltar.
The British overseas territory allowed the ship - suspected by the United States of shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions - to sail after rejecting the US demand.
Zarif expressed fury that "the US is harassing our ship in international waters and preventing freedom of navigation."
But he declined to say where the vessel, the Adrian Darya, was heading.
"We will not be announcing its destination because the United States will further sabotage our economic activities," he said.
Zarif insisted that Iran did not want war with the United States but warned that a ramped-up Western naval presence in the Gulf increased the risk of accidents which analysts say could spark a wider confrontation.
"We do not seek military confrontation," Zarif said.
"But it is clear bringing naval vessels to the Persian Gulf ... will not increase security ... but the possibility of accidents and incidents," he added.