Iran could be only days away from bumping up its nuclear capabilities after last-ditch talks with world powers failed to appease the Islamic Republic.
European countries were unable to offer enough to encourage Iran not to expand its nuclear program by exceeding imposed restrictions on the maximum amount of enriched uranium it can produce.
Iran has vowed to break the 2015 nuclear deal, which offers economic benefits in exchange for nuclear concessions, after Washington quit the pact last year, reimposing sanctions on Iran.
The countries still signed up to the agreement — Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China — held urgent talks with Iranian officials on Friday in Vienna in the hope of persuading Tehran to hold off.
The high-stakes meeting comes a week after President Donald Trump called off air strikes against Iran with only minutes to spare and amid escalating relations that world leaders fear could trigger war.
Diplomats say Iran is only days away from ramping up enriched uranium production which would escalate confrontation between Tehran and Washington.
Iran’s envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, said the talks were “a step forward, but it is still not enough and not meeting Iran’s expectations”.
He said it was ultimately up to his superiors in Tehran but he did not believe the talks’ outcome was likely to change their minds.
The likelihood that Iran could exceed uranium enrichment limits as soon as the next few days is the next looming worry for European leaders trying to keep confrontation between Washington and Tehran from spiralling out of control.
Despite abandoning the deal and reimposing sanctions on Iran, Washington has demanded European countries ensure Iran keeps complying with it.
But Iran says it will not comply unless the Europeans provide it with some way to receive the deal’s promised economic benefits.
In particular, it wants its oil exports restored to the level of April 2018, before Mr Trump reimposed sanctions.
So far, attempts to protect Iran from the impact of US sanctions have failed, with Iran largely shunned in international oil markets and all major companies cancelling plans to invest there for fear of falling afoul of US rules.
French President Emmanuel Macron said this week he would ask US President Donald Trump to ease sanctions to allow negotiations to begin.
But the plea seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, with Mr Trump’s Iran envoy saying on Friday sanctions would remain in place to end Iranian oil exports altogether.
Washington has warned it will also sanction any country that imports Iranian oil.
“We will sanction any imports of Iranian crude oil,” US special envoy Brian Hook said.
“There are right now no oil waivers in place.
“We will sanction any illicit purchases of Iranian crude oil.”
China, long a big importer of Iranian oil, said it rejected US sanctions, but Fu Cong, director general of the Department of Arms Control of the Chinese foreign ministry, would not be drawn on whether Beijing planned to keep buying.
Tehran has been selling increased volumes of petrochemical products at below-market rates in countries including Brazil, China and India since the United States reimposed sanctions on Iranian oil exports in November, Reuters reported this month.