The Iran nuclear deal is in fresh trouble after the UK and other EU powers triggered a “dispute mechanism” in protest at Tehran’s breaches of the agreement.

The move brings the EU a step closer to reimposing sanctions on Iran if the row cannot be resolved and is brought back to the United Nations security council. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson said Tehran would give a “firm and serious” response to the move. 

But the triggering of the dispute mechanism also could mark a potential setback in Iran’s efforts to separate Europe from the US, which has been pressuring leaders in western capitals to join in its “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian regime.  

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“It definitely takes the deal into a new phase,” Ellie Geranmayeh, a scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Independent. “It’s going to be a chapter that the Europeans are going to own, both the process and the outcome.”

The invoking of the dispute mechanism, by the so-called E3 group, came hours after Boris Johnson said the agreement should be scrapped and replaced with a better “Trump deal”, which the US president would negotiate.

The row has escalated after Iran suspended all limits on its production of enriched uranium, in a response to the assassination of Qassem Soleimani.

It marked a further step back from its commitments under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), because the uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons as well as reactor fuel. 

It is understood that the E3 had been mulling the move since Iran’s first breaches of its commitments last summer, but regarded Tehran’s initial steps as “technical” and reversible contraventions of its obligations. The decision to trigger dispute resolution mechanisms was taken before Christmas, after Iran began research work with new and more sophisticated types of centrifuge, but the step was delayed until the new year in order to keep Russia and China – also signatories to the JCPOA – on board.

Triggering the mechanism is regarded in European capitals as a means to preserve the JCPOA, and not the start of a process leading to an imminent reference to the UN Security Council and a “snap-back” to pre-2015 sanctions.

Under the terms of the agreement, the mechanism envisages a joint commission of senior officials of signatory nations – including Iran – meeting in the coming days to discuss the claims of a breach and the steps needed to reverse it. The mechanism is subject to renewal every 15 days, but this would happen automatically without the need for a further meeting unless one of the signatories signalled a desire to bring down the agreement altogether.

It is hoped in Europe that the process will provide Tehran with a route back towards compliance. But it is recognised that the timescale within which Iran could acquire a bomb – estimated at less than a year prior to the forging of the agreement – is shortening.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary – in a statement to MPs – insisted the EU nations wanted to rescue the agreement, prompting criticism that No 10 and the Foreign Office were at odds.

Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, told him: “In the space of two or three days the prime minister has gone from signing a joint statement with France and Germany calling for the retention and restoration of the JCPOA, to calling for it to be scrapped and replaced by some mythical Trump deal.”

And Hilary Benn, a senior Labour backbencher, said: “Either the prime minister wants to maintain this deal or he is now advocating for its replacement. He cannot credibly hold both positions. Which one is the policy of the government?”.

But Mr Raab said: “He is just wrong. Of course you can want to preserve this deal, but be ambitious if it’s possible, to bring in the US and Tehran into a broader rapprochement dealing.”

Meanwhile, German foreign minister Heiko Maas said the Europeans “could no longer leave the increasing Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement unanswered”.

“Our goal is clear,” he said in a statement. “We want to preserve the agreement and reach a diplomatic solution within its framework. We will tackle this together with all partners to the deal. We call on Iran to participate constructively in the negotiation process that is now beginning.”

The E3 have tried, with Russia and China, to keep the agreement alive ever since Donald Trump pulled the US out in 2018, long before the latest crisis.

But anger has grown in Iran over crippling US sanctions which have caused its oil exports to collapse and the value of its currency to plummet, resulting in soaring inflation.

Iran contends that by largely abiding by US sanctions, European powers have been complicit in the US campaign to pressure the country. But European officials argue they have little control over the private businesses that decline to do commerce with Iran for fear of triggering American reprisals.

The move by the E3 had been long anticipated, especially after Iran’s most recent downgrading of its commitment to the terms of the deal. But experts fear it could trigger a fresh round of escalation between Iran and the west. 

“There’s a backdrop of military escalation happening between the US and Iran,” said Ms Geranmayeh. “The Iranians have left open the door for a diplomatic effort. If they feel that the Europeans in addition to the Americans are cornering them and it might encourage them to expand the nuclear programme further.”

In a joint statement, the E3 said: “Iran has continued to break key restrictions set out in the JCPOA. Iran’s actions are inconsistent with the provisions of the nuclear agreement and have increasingly severe and non-reversible proliferation implications.

“We do not accept the argument that Iran is entitled to reduce compliance with the JCPOA.”

They said Iran’s decision on 5 January to suspend the last key commitment on uranium enrichment – the limit on the number of uranium centrifuges – had left them with no choice but to invoke the dispute resolution mechanism.

“We do this in good faith with the overarching objective of preserving the JCPOA and in the sincere hope of finding a way forward to resolve the impasse through constructive diplomatic dialogue, while preserving the agreement and remaining within its framework,” the statement said.

Nevertheless, with Iran unlikely to accept further restrictions – and the US president determined to pursue sanctions – the move could spell the end for the five-year deal.

Earlier, Mr Johnson heaped praise on Mr Trump’s negotiating skills, saying: “Let’s replace it [the JCPOA] with the Trump deal. That’s what we need to see. I think that would be a great way forward – President Trump is a great deal-maker.”

He added: “Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead, that’s the opportunity.” 

Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson later rejected suggestions that the PM’s comments indicated the UK’s support for the existing JCPOA deal was waning.

The PM’s official spokesperson said: “The JCPOA is the only deal that currently exists which prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“As the PM has said before – including in New York in September – if in the future we can agree a better deal that has the support of the US as well, then that is something we will work towards.”

The spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry, Abbas Mousavi, called the European move unconstructive. But he also said the door to diplomacy remains open. “The Islamic Republic, as before, is fully ready to show goodwill and make constructive attempts to maintain international agreements and would welcome any practical initiatives in this regard,” he was quoted as saying.

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