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Europeans Engage With Iran On Regional Issues As Trump Deadline Nears

PARIS/ANKARA, March 1 (Reuters) - European powers and Iran have started talks over Tehran's role in the Middle East and will meet again this month in Italy as part of efforts to prove to U.S. President Donald Trump that they are meeting his concerns over the 2015 nuclear deal.

With Trump warning of a last chance for "the worst deal ever negotiated", Britain, France and Germany have been working with U.S. officials to draw up a strategy to improve the Iran nuclear deal in return for Trump keeping the pact alive by renewing U.S. sanctions relief on May 12.

Parallel to those efforts, the three European powers, joined by Italy and the European Union, have initiated discussions with Iran to address regional issues amid Western, Gulf Arab and Israeli concerns that Iran's role in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq is destabilising.

Tehran denies this and accuses the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia of fomenting tensions in the Middle East.

Senior officials held a first meeting on the sidelines of last month's Munich security conference, focusing on Iran's role in the Yemen conflict. They are due to meet again in Italy this month, two European diplomats and an Iranian official said. A third European confirmed the Munich meeting.

"In Munich we laid out what was expected from them in Yemen. They obviously said it wasn’t them, but we drew some conclusions to move forward together," said a senior European diplomat.

"The Iranians are pretty co-operative, but having a positive meeting doesn't mean we'll see any sort of impact in the real world."

Iran backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country's almost seven-year-old civil war, Shi'ite Muslim militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

"Most of the gaps can be narrowed with the West ... but it needs goodwill and loads of work," said a senior Iranian official. "The West should gain our trust again ... the nuclear deal was not fully implemented, how can we trust them on other issues?"

The talks with the Europeans come after the most serious confrontation yet between Israel and Iranian-backed forces in Syria last month.

The senior diplomat said the Europeans hoped to discuss the role of pro-Iranian militias in southern Lebanon and southern Syria in their next round of meetings.

"In public they (Iranians) say of course they do not want to accept this. But we believe there are grounds for progress," said a senior EU official.

The European powers, who meet American officials in Berlin on March 15, have stressed to the United States that while they will work on an Iran strategy, including tackling its ballistic missile programme, in return Trump must not kill the accord.

"We want to keep the nuclear deal, but we're telling the Iranians that we have other problems with them. We need to see progress on these issues. Otherwise, because of Trump it will lead to the collapse of the accord," said a senior French diplomat.