Iran Set to Breach Enriched Uranium Level Allowed by Nuke Deal

Decision comes less than a week after Tehran acknowledged breaking deal's 300-kilogram limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile

The heavy water plant in Arak, 320 kms south of Tehran, August 26, 2006
AFP

Iran announced Sunday it will raise its level of enriched uranium, breaking another limit of its unraveling 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and further heightening tensions between Tehran and the U.S.

Government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a news conference that Iran will go beyond the limit of 3.67 percent enrichment Sunday and that the new percentage "will be based on our needs," without specifying.

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In a sign of heightening tensions, France, Germany and Britain -- all parties to the deal - expressed concerns over the step taken by Tehran, its latest effort to force the West to lift sanctions ravaging its limping economy. 

Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, meanwhile said that his nation considers the 2015 deal to be a "valid document" and seeks its continuation. The deputy foreign minister said Iran is open to negotiations with Europe, and that the United States could join such talks.

However, Araghcci said Tehran will take another step impacting its compliance with the deal in 60 days. He told a news conference Sunday that he cannot elaborate now on the nature of the next step.

French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Tehran's decision on Sunday, qualifying it as a "violation" of the agreement, an official of the presidency told Reuters. 

The French president reiterated the deadline of July 15 to resume dialogue between the parties, the official said, without elaborating on what would happen after that date. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on world powers to impose "snapback sanctions" on Iran for the breach.

Netanyahu said Sunday that enriching uranium to such levels has only one purpose — to create atomic bombs, and called the decision a "very, very dangerous step."

Israel's energy minister described the increase as moderate but accused Tehran of breaking out of internationally agreed limitations on its nuclear projects and moving towards a potential bomb. 

"Iran has begun - while it is a moderate rise right now - but it has begun to raise, to break out of the uranium enrichment curbs that were imposed on it," Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet, told Israel's Ynet TV. 

"It means ... that it is brushing off the red lines that were agreed (and) that it has begun its march, a march that is not simple, toward nuclear weaponry." 

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. 

Iran made the decision a year after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal. Iran has repeatedly warned Europe in recent weeks that it would begin walking away from an accord neutered by a maximalist American campaign of sanctions that blocked Tehran's oil sales abroad and targeted its top officials.

Sunday's decision came less than a week after Iran acknowledged breaking the deal's 300-kilogram (661-pound) limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile. Experts warn higher enrichment and a growing stockpile narrow the one-year window Iran would need to have enough material for an atomic bomb, something Iran denies it wants but the deal prevented.

Hopes for saving the faltering deal appear increasingly dim, as the Europeans have been unable to offer Iran any effective way around U.S. sanctions. While the steps are concerning to nuclear non-proliferation experts, they could be easily reversible if Europeans offer Iran the sanctions relief it seeks.

Tensions began rising in May when the U.S. rushed thousands of additional troops, an aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets to the Mideast. Mysterious oil tanker blasts near the Strait of Hormuz, attacks by Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen on Saudi Arabia and Iran shooting down a U.S. military drone have raised fears of a wider conflict engulfing a region crucial to global energy supplies.