By John Irish and Guy Faulconbridge

PARIS/LONDON (Reuters) - Britain, France and Germany formally accused Iran on Tuesday of violating the terms of its 2015 agreement to curb its nuclear programme, which eventually could lead to the reimposing of U.N. sanctions lifted under the deal.

The European powers said they were acting to avoid a crisis over nuclear proliferation adding to an escalating confrontation in the Middle East. Russia, another signatory to the pact, said it saw no grounds to trigger the mechanism and Iran dismissed the step as a "strategic mistake."

The three countries said they still wanted the nuclear deal with Tehran to succeed and were not joining a "maximum pressure" campaign by the U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, which abandoned the pact in 2018 and has reimposed economic sanctions on Iran.

The countries triggered the deal's "dispute mechanism," which amounts to formally accusing Iran of violating the terms of the agreement.

Iran's foreign minister criticised the move.

"The usage of the dispute mechanism is legally baseless and a strategic mistake from a political standpoint," Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, according to the Fars news agency.

Iran, which denies its nuclear programme is aimed at building a bomb, has gradually rolled back its commitments under the accord since the United States quit. It argues that Washington's actions justify such a course.

"We do not accept the argument that Iran is entitled to reduce compliance with the JCPoA," the three European countries said in a joint statement, using the formal name of the agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

"Our three countries are not joining a campaign to implement maximum pressure against Iran. Our hope is to bring Iran back into full compliance with its commitments under the JCPoA," they said.

Iran has long accused the Europeans of reneging on promises to protect its economy from U.S. sanctions. Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi dismissed the "completely passive action" of the three countries.

He said Iran would support any act of "goodwill and constructive effort" to save the agreement but would give a "serious response to any destructive measures."

Russia's Foreign Ministry said activating the mechanism could make it impossible to resume implementation of the deal.

CONFRONTATION

To trigger the mechanism, the European states notified the European Union, which acts as guarantor of the agreement. EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell said the aim was not to reimpose sanctions but to ensure compliance.

After months of gradual steps to reduce compliance, Iran said on Jan. 6 it would scrap limits on enriching uranium.

The nuclear diplomacy is at the heart of a broader confrontation between Iran and the United States, in which Washington killed an Iranian general in a drone strike in Baghdad and Tehran responded by launching missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq.

In Washington on Tuesday, U.S. senators said they had enough votes to pass a resolution, likely next week, curbing Trump's ability to pursue military action against Iran without Congress' approval.

"Given recent events, it is all the more important that we do not add a nuclear proliferation crisis to the current escalation threatening the whole region," the European states said, adding that their aim was preserving the deal.

Trump abandoned the nuclear deal reached under his predecessor Barack Obama, arguing it was too weak and new sanctions would force Iran to accept more stringent terms. Iran says it will not negotiate with sanctions in place.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday: "If we're going to get rid of it, let's replace it and let's replace it with the Trump deal."

The U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, said Washington was "very pleased" by Johnson's comments. He also said the United States would like France, Britain and Germany to join its efforts to diplomatically isolate Tehran.

Under the mechanism, the EU should inform the other parties - Russia and China as well as Iran. There would then be 15 days to resolve differences, a deadline that can be extended or ultimately lead to reimposing U.N. sanctions.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not allow its arch-foe Iran to obtain nuclear weapons and called on Western countries to impose "snapback sanctions" on Tehran under previous U.N. resolutions.

"We know exactly what is happening with the Iranian nuclear programme. Iran thinks it can achieve nuclear weapons. I reiterate: Israel will not allow Iran to achieve nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said.

(Reporting by John Irish and Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Babak Deghanpisheh in Dubai, Marine Strauss in Strasbourg and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff and Edmund Blair; Editing by Jon Boyle and Angus MacSwan)

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