Iran to boost uranium enrichment level above nuclear pact’s limit
Rouhani defies US efforts to force Tehran into renegotiating the pact
Geneva — Iran will boost its uranium enrichment after July 7 to whatever levels it needs beyond the cap set in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, President Hassan Rouhani says, defying US efforts to force Tehran into renegotiating the pact.
Iran announced this week it has stockpiled more low-enriched uranium than is permitted under the accord, a move that prompted US President Donald Trump — who withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 — to warn Iran was “playing with fire”.
European co-signatories said on Tuesday they were “extremely concerned” by Tehran’s apparent breach of the deal while Israel said it was preparing for possible involvement in any military confrontation between Iran and the US.
Weeks of tensions crested in June when Tehran shot down a US military surveillance drone and Trump responded with a decision to launch air strikes only to call them off at the last minute. Washington also accused Iran of being behind attacks on several oil tankers in the Gulf, which Tehran denies.
“Our level of enrichment will no longer be 3.67. We will put this commitment aside by whatever amount we feel like, by whatever amount is our necessity, our need. We will take this above 3.67,” said Rouhani, according to IRIB news agency.
He added that the Islamic Republic's actions were reversible. “All of our actions can be returned to the previous condition within one hour, why are you worried?” he said.
Though his tone was unusually tough, Rouhani was the architect of the nuclear pact and is seen as a pragmatist, unlike senior clerics in Iran’s ruling elite who opposed his opening to the West and have never let up in their denunciations of the US.
Uranium refined to a fissile purity of 3.67% is deemed suitable for electricity generation and is the maximum allowed by the deal. Enrichment to 90% yields bomb-grade material.
Rouhani said that if the other signatories did not protect trade with Iran promised under the deal but blocked by Trump’s reimposition of tough sanctions, Tehran would also start to revive its Arak heavy-water reactor after July 7.
As required by the accord, Iran said in January 2016 that it had removed the core of the reactor and filled it with cement.
“From (July 7) onward with the Arak reactor, if you don’t operate according to the programme and time frame of all the commitments you’ve given us, we will return the Arak reactor to its previous condition,” said Rouhani.
“Meaning, the condition that you say is dangerous and can produce plutonium,” he said, referring to a key potential component of a nuclear bomb. “We will return to that unless you take action regarding all your commitments regarding Arak.”
He kept the door open to negotiations, saying Iran would again reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium below the 300-kilogram limit set by the nuclear pact if signatories Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China honoured their deal pledges.
Iran will gain nothing by departing from the terms of the deal, the French foreign ministry cautioned on Wednesday. Boris Johnson, the leading candidate to succeed British Prime Minister Theresa May, urged Iran to “think very, very hard” about scrapping a deal that had been “a good guarantor of stability” in relations with the EU and Washington.
US sanctions noose
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated since Trump pulled Washington out of the pact in May 2018 and acted to bar all international sales of Iranian oil, the Islamic Republic’s economic lifeblood.
“If America is very afraid of the word ‘fire’ then it shouldn’t light the flame,” Rouhani, apparently referring to Trump’s remark, said in remarks on the presidential website. “And the only way to extinguish the fire is to return to the commitments and resolutions of the UN (that underpinned the 2015 agreement).”
The European signatories to the accord have sought to pull the two longstanding adversaries back from the verge of military conflict, fearing a mistake could spiral into a wider Middle East war endangering global security and energy supplies.
Israel has encouraged the Trump administration to press ahead with sanctions against its regional arch-enemy Iran, predicting that Tehran will eventually renegotiate a more limiting nuclear deal as Washington has demanded.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denies that Iran is in violation of the nuclear accord by exceeding the cap on low-enriched uranium, saying Iran is exercising its right to respond after the US withdrawal.
“Until today the US saw the nuclear deal as a bad agreement and under these conditions then if Iran wants to distance itself from this agreement then they should be happy. But (now) that Iran has distanced itself they are upset and their shouts and screams have risen up in the world,” he said.
The nuclear accord lifted most global sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on its uranium enrichment capacity.
It aimed to extend the time Tehran would need to produce a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, from roughly two to three months to a year.
Tehran has denied any intent to develop nuclear weapons.
Before the showdown with Washington, UN nuclear inspectors had repeatedly verified that Iran was honouring the limits on both its refined uranium stockpile and the level of enrichment.
Iran's oil exports decimated
Iran’s main demand — in talks with the European parties to the deal and as a precondition to any talks with the US — is to be allowed to sell its oil at the levels that prevailed before Trump left the deal and restored sanctions.
Iranian crude exports were around 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) or less in late June, industry sources said, a small fraction of the more than 2.5-million bpd Iran shipped in April 2018, the month before Trump abandoned the nuclear deal.
The head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday the enemy — an allusion to Washington — was worried about the prospect of war and was focused instead on an economic conflict, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
Tehran has said the US sanctions regime amounts to “economic war” meant to starve its population. Iran is now shunned on oil markets and major foreign companies have dropped plans to invest for fear of incurring US financial penalties.
Trump renounced the nuclear deal on grounds that it was too weak for not being permanent and not covering security issues like Iran's ballistic missile programme and regional behaviour.