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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Iran’s Zarif embarks on diplomatic tour to rescue nuclear deal

He will shuttle between Beijing, Moscow and Brussels after US withdrawal

In this April 24, 2018, file photo, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is interviewed by The Associated Press, in New York. Zarif has taken to YouTube on Thursday, May 3, to criticize President Donald Trump's threat to withdraw from the nuclear deal, saying Iran will not "renegotiate or add onto" the atomic accord. Richard Drew / AP File
In this April 24, 2018, file photo, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is interviewed by The Associated Press, in New York. Zarif has taken to YouTube on Thursday, May 3, to criticize President Donald Trump's threat to withdraw from the nuclear deal, saying Iran will not "renegotiate or add onto" the atomic accord. Richard Drew / AP File

Iran's foreign minister is to leave for a whirlwind diplomatic tour as world leaders scrambled to salvage something from the wreckage of the nuclear deal that US President Donald Trump withdrew from this week and after two top nuclear experts resigned from their positions.

Mohammad Javad Zarif's tour starts on Saturday, two days after unprecedented Israeli strikes in Syria that a monitor said killed at least 11 Iranian fighters, triggering fears of a broader conflict between the two arch-enemies.

He will visit Beijing, Moscow and Brussels, a spokesman said, holding meetings with all of the remaining parties to the 2015 agreement signed between Tehran and five world powers.

Before leaving, Mr Zarif published a government statement on his Twitter page, slamming the "extremist administration" of US President Donald Trump for abandoning "an accord recognised as a victory of diplomacy by the international community".

It reiterated that Iran was preparing to resume "industrial-scale" uranium enrichment "without any restrictions" unless Europe provided solid guarantees that it could maintain trade ties despite renewed US sanctions.

Mr Zarif's delicate diplomatic mission was complicated by reports of clashes between Iranian and Israeli forces in Syria on Thursday.

The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights on Saturday said a total of 27 pro-regime fighters were killed in strikes by Israel, which has vowed to prevent Iran gaining a military foothold in neighbouring Syria.

Tehran, which has sought to avoid an escalation that could alienate its European partners, has not commented on whether its forces were hit.

Israel and its allies have blamed the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) for initiating Thursday's exchange by launching missiles into the Golan Heights, which Israel occupies.

The White House backed Israel's claims, accusing Iran of "reckless actions" that posed a "severe threat" to stability in the Middle East.

"Already this week, the IRGC has fired rockets at Israeli citizens, and Iran's proxies in Yemen have launched a ballistic missile at Riyadh," it said.

Mr Trump spoke with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday, and "both leaders condemned the Iranian regime's provocative rocket attacks from Syria", the White House said.

Iran denies that version of events, saying the Israeli strikes were launched on "invented pretexts".

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Added to efforts to salvage the nuclear deal amid rising tensions have been the resignations of two top nuclear officials in what appeared to be a reaction to Mr Trump’s decision.

The United Nations nuclear watchdog said on Saturday that its top inspector has quit with immediate effect. The International Atomic Energy Agency didn’t give a reason for the sudden resignation of Tero Varjoranta, stating on Saturday that it doesn’t comment on confidential personnel matters.

Mr Varjoranta, who was in the role for almost five years, will be replaced temporarily by Massimo Aparo, an Italian nuclear engineer who was most recently the agency’s top inspector for Iran.

The inspector’s exit came in the same week that one of the US State Department’s top experts on nuclear proliferation resigned.

Richard Johnson, a career civil servant who served as acting assistant co-ordinator in department's office of Iran Nuclear Implementation, was involved in talks with the parties who hoped to salvage the deal, such as Britain, France and Germany.

“I am proud to have played a small part in this work, particularly the extraordinary achievement of implementing the [deal] with Iran, which has clearly been successful in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” he wrote, according to an email obtained by Foreign Policy magazine.

He did not provide the reason that led to his resignation but it came in the same week that Mr Trump pulled out of the deal he had long worked on.

His exit is leaving the US government short of experts on Iranian nuclear issues, with his entire office of seven staffers leaving in the 16 months since the president’s inauguration.

The departure of top officials from the various bodies that helped to craft the landmark agreement signed between Tehran and world powers could weaken any salvaged agreement, or even threaten its continued existence.