Iran Nuke Breach Is Europe's Test, Netanyahu Tells Haaretz

European leaders must keep their promise, Israel's prime minister says following news that Tehran is now enriching uranium to 4.5% – a major violation of the 2015 deal

Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 30, 2019.
Oded Balilty/Pool via REUTERS

European leaders should sanction Iran for enriching uranium at a level beyond that allowed in the 2015 nuclear deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Haaretz on Monday following news that Tehran is now enriching uranium to 4.5 percent.

"If I hadn't led this battle against Iran, it would already have a nuclear arsenal," Netanyahu said when asked during a Facebook Live session if U.S. President Donald Trump's 2018 withdrawal from the deal made the situation more dangerous.

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"The reason they don't have [a nuclear arsenal yet] is because we put pressure on them, against the whole world and the previous American administration as well, and against a lot of people in the Israeli government too," Netanyahu said. "It poses a huge danger to our future and this has stopped them at this time.

>> Read more: Iran still has room to maneuver, but Trump is running out of diplomatic options | Analysis ■ The Iran crisis is exposing a far deeper conflict between Trump and Europe | Opinion

"Now they're trying to cross the line, and the Americans imposed sanctions that make it very hard for [the Iranians], but it didn't end the matter," he argued. "They're trying to signal that they're heading for a [nuclear] bomb, and we will make sure that doesn't happen. The big question isn't what our policy is, because nothing has changed there…"

"I again turn to Europe's leaders: You promised that if Iran made that tiny step, enriching uranium, which is the gunpowder of nuclear weapons – you said that if they exceed the permissible amount, you would wield sanctions," Netanyahu said. "So I am saying to you: Do it. Because they're testing you.... A violent, murderous regime is testing the spine of the West and I expect you to keep your promises."

Earlier Monday, semi-official media in Iran quoted the country’s nuclear agency spokesman as saying Tehran is now enriching uranium to 4.5 percent, a move that is Tehran's first major violation of the nuclear agreement.

The UN nuclear watchdog policing the deal confirmed that Iran had informed it of this.

Iran also threatened on Monday to restart deactivated centrifuges and sharply step up its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity as its next potential big moves away from the nuclear deal.

The ISNA and Fars news agencies separately quoted Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

Kamalvandi told the agencies this decision met the needs that Iran has now.

Kamalvandi said Monday Iran has passed the 3.67 percent uranium enrichment cap set by its landmark 2015 nuclear deal and may enrich at even higher levels. Iran earlier broke a limit put on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.

In response, the European Commission spokesperson said in a statement that the EU is "extremely concerned" about Iran's announcement, adding that Brussels urges Tehran to stop and reverse any activities going against the deal's limits.

Also Monday, U.S Vice President Mike Pence told a conference of the Christians United for Israel advocacy group that Washington is prepared to protect U.S. personnel and citizens in the Middle East.

"Let me be clear: Iran should not confuse American restraint with a lack of American resolve," Pence said. "We hope for the best, but the United States of America and our military are prepared to protect our interests and protect our personnel and our citizens in the region." In his prepared remarks, Pence had planned to say that Washington remained open to talks with Tehran, but dropped the line in his delivered speech. 

Iran said on Sunday it would boost uranium enrichment above the cap, prompting a warning from Trump, who wants the pact renegotiated, that Tehran "better be careful." 

"Twenty percent is not needed now, but if we want we will produce it. When we've put aside 3.67 percent enrichment we have no obstacle or problem with this action," Kamalvandi was quoted as saying, noting that options for enriching at higher levels had been discussed with the Supreme National Security Council.

"There is the 20 percent option and there are options even higher than that but each in its own place. Today if our country's needs are one thing, we won't pursue something else just to scare the other side a little more.

"But they know it's an upward trend," he said.

Increasing the number of centrifuges is an option for Iran's third step in reducing its commitments to the nuclear deal, Kamalvandi said, noting that restarting IR-2 and IR-2 M centrifuges is an option.

The remaining European signatories to the nuclear deal should act quickly to fulfill their promises because Iran will continue reducing its commitments to the deal until it achieves a result, Kamalvandi said, according to IRIB.

Under terms of the nuclear deal, Iran can keep a stockpile of no more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of low-enriched uranium. That’s compared to the 10,000 kilograms (22,046 pounds) of higher-enriched uranium it once had. Currently, the accord limits Iran to enriching uranium to 3.67 percent, which can fuel a commercial nuclear power plant. Weapons-grade uranium needs to be enriched to around 90 percent.

However, once a country enriches uranium to around 20 percent, scientists say the time needed to reach 90 percent is halved. Iran previously has enriched to 20 percent.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.