Iran said on Thursday that three European states had succumbed to "high school bully" Donald Trump when they triggered a dispute mechanism in a nuclear pact the U.S. president opposes, a step that could eventually lead to reimposing UN sanctions.
The pact, known as the JCPOA, was agreed in 2015 between Tehran and world powers, offering Iran sanctions relief if it curbed its nuclear work. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed U.S. sanctions, saying he wanted a tougher deal.
Iran has responded by scaling back its compliance with terms of the pact, saying this month it rejected all limits on uranium enrichment, although it says it wants to keep the deal in place.
Britain, France and Germany triggered the accord's dispute mechanism this week. London said it was now time for a "Trump deal" to replace it, while Paris said broad talks were needed.
The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Washington had threatened to impose a 25% tariff on European automobile imports if the three European capitals did not formally accuse Iran of breaking the nuclear agreement.
"Appeasement confirmed. E3 sold out remnants of #JCPOA to avoid new Trump tariffs. It won't work my friends. You only whet his appetite. Remember your high school bully?" Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter.
Two European diplomats confirmed Washington had threatened tariffs but said leaders of the three European states had already decided to trigger the mechanism before that.
Another diplomat said Washington risked "discrediting the Europeans, but then Trump doesn't really care about that," adding a U.S. threat to impose tariffs on the Europeans would send a message to Iran that only Washington mattered.
The European Union said on Thursday its top diplomat, Josep Borrell, held "frank" talks with Zarif on the sidelines of a conference in New Delhi.
The Europeans have long opposed Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal. The dispute mechanism begins a diplomatic process that can end with U.N. sanctions on Iran "snapping back" into place, although the Europeans say that is not their aim.
In announcing the launch of the dispute mechanism, the European powers said they were not backing a U.S. policy of "maximum pressure" on Iran, and they hoped to save the accord.
The nuclear dispute lies at the heart of Iran's long-running standoff with the West that spiraled into open conflict this month when Washington killed an Iranian general in Baghdad and Tehran responded with missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq.
While on alert for U.S. reprisals, Iran shot down a civilian airliner by mistake, triggering days of anti-government protests at home. Anger at the state has continued at victims' funerals.
"Death to the dictator," mourners shouted as they buried two victims of the plane disaster in the city of Sanandaj on Thursday, videos posted online showed, referring to Iran's top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Facing unrest at home and pressure from abroad, Khamenei will deliver a sermon at prayers on Friday, the first time he has addressed the prominent weekly gathering in eight years.
U.S. sanctions have added to Iran's challenges, driving up prices as the currency crumbles in value.
"Pressure has increased on Iran but we continue to progress," President Hassan Rouhani said on Thursday, adding Iran was now enriching more uranium than before the 2015 deal.
Enriched uranium can be used to create material for nuclear warheads. Iran denies Western accusations it wants such weapons and says it wants nuclear material for peaceful purposes.
The U.S. administration has said a new deal should not only cover Iran's nuclear program but also its development of ballistic missiles and activities in the region, where it wields influence via allied militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
Iran has repeatedly said it will not talk with sanctions in place. It has also said it cannot negotiate with Trump who broke U.S. promises by abandoning the previous deal.