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Iran-Trump Nuclear Standoff Reaches Tipping Point as Uranium Stockpile Set to Increase

Iran's Rohani says the Islamic Republic will resume higher uranium enrichment if Europe doesn't help shield it from U.S. sanctions, a move which would violate the nuclear accord

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows an illustration of Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions at the 67th session of the UN General Assembly, Sept. 27, 2012
Richard Drew,AP

Iran announced in mid-June that by the 27th of the month it will exceed the uranium stockpile limit set by Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, pushing tensions with the U.S. into uncharted and potentially dangerous territory.

The June 27 deadline comes ahead of another, July 7, the deadline for Europe to come up with better terms for Iran to stay in the accord. If that second deadline passes without any action, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says the Islamic Republic likely will resume higher uranium enrichment, a move that would breach the terms of a nuclear pact with world powers.

That threat could lead Iran's nuclear program to have enough uranium to fuel a bomb within a year.

Limiting the volume and purity of Iran's uranium stockpile was a key component of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2015 and U.S. President Donald Trump has claimed that all options are on the table to stop Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon.

After Trump withdrew from the agreement, signed by his predecessor Barack Obama, he reinstated punishing economic sanctions, leaving the European and other partners in the accord struggling to keep Iran on board.

On the same day Iran announced it would soon violate the agreement, the U.S. administration found itself in the awkward position of demanding that Iran comply with the nuclear accord that the president derided as the worst deal in history.

Trump on Sunday offered to talk with Iran: “I'm not looking for war, and if there is, it'll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before,” Trump said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “You want to talk? Good ... no preconditions.” The Trump administration has aruged that its "maximum pressure" strategy with Iran will lead to open negotiations on its nuclear and missile programs. 

Trump's offer came only days after he pulled back at the last minute from precision air strikes, which were reportedly targeting missile batteries and radar sites - a retaliatory move for Iran shooting down a U.S. drone.

Senior officials from France, Germany, Britain, China, Russia and Iran will meet on June 28 in Vienna to discuss ways to save the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran, the European Union said in a statement on Thursday.

The meeting will look at how to "tackle challenges arising from the withdrawal and re-imposition of sanctions by the United States on Iran," the EU said in a statement, referring to Trump's decision to quit the deal in May 2018. Iran this week insisted that European countries shield it from U.S. sanctions through a trade mechanism.

Russia and its partners will take steps to counter new sanctions that Washington has said it will impose on Iran, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Monday.

Here’s where Iran’s unravelling nuclear program now stands.

THE NUCLEAR DEAL

Iran struck the nuclear deal in 2015 with the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China. The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, grew out of secret talks President Barack Obama’s administration held with Iran after Rouhani, a relative moderate, took office.

Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium under the watch of UN inspectors in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. International businesses rushed to do deals with Iran, most notably the billion-dollar sales by Airbus and Boeing Co.

 Trump, who campaigned on a promise of tearing up the deal because it didn’t address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its involvement in regional conflicts, withdrew America from the accord in May 2018. That halted promised international business deals and dealt a heavy blow to Iran’s already anemic economy. In the time since, the Trump administration has said any country that imports Iranian crude will face U.S. sanctions.

IRAN’S NUCLEAR FACILITIES

Natanz, in Iran’s central Isfahan province, hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility, located underground. Iran has one operating nuclear power plant in Bushehr, which it opened with Russia’s help in 2011. Under the accord, Iran reconfigured a heavy-water reactor so it couldn’t produce plutonium and agreed to convert its Fordo enrichment site — dug deep into a mountainside — into a research center. Iran said on Monday it may stop the heavy-water reactor reconfiguration. Tehran also operates an over 50-year-old research reactor in Tehran.

IRAN’S URANIUM STOCKPILE

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%, which can fuel a commercial nuclear power plant. Weapons-grade uranium needs to be enriched to around 90%. However, once a country enriches uranium to around 20%, scientists say the time needed to reach 90% is halved. Iran previously has enriched to 20%. Iranian officials say they’ve quadrupled their production of low-enriched uranium and will break the 300-kilogram limit by June 27.

IRAN’S CENTRIFUGES

A centrifuge is a device that enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. Under the atomic accord, Iran has been limited to operating 5,060 older-model IR-1 centrifuges. The IR-1 is based on a 1970s Dutch design that Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan used to build Islamabad’s nuclear weapons program and later sold to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Iran has the technical ability to build and operate advanced versions called the IR-2M, IR-4 and IR-6 at Natanz, but is barred from doing so under the nuclear deal. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear program, told The Associated Press in September that the IR-2M and the IR-4 can enrich uranium five times faster than an IR-1, while the IR-6 can do it 10 times faster. Western experts have suggested these centrifuges produce three to five times more enriched uranium in a year than the IR-1s.

Iran also mothballed many already-built centrifuges as part of the deal.

FROM ‘ATOMS FOR PEACE’ TO STUXNET

Iran’s nuclear program actually began with the help of the United States. Under its “Atoms for Peace” program, America supplied a test reactor that came online in Tehran in 1967 under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. That help ended once Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah.

In the 1990s, Iran expanded its program, including buying equipment from A.Q. Khan. Among its activities, Iran “may have received design information” for a bomb and researched explosive detonators, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

By August 2002, Western intelligence services and an Iranian opposition group revealed a covert nuclear site at Natanz. Iran to this day denies its nuclear program had a military dimension. Iran suspended enrichment in 2003 but resumed it three years later under hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. World powers imposed crippling U.N. sanctions in response. The Stuxnet computer virus, widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli creation, soon disrupted thousands of Iranian centrifuges.

A string of bombings, blamed on Israel, targeted a number of scientists beginning in 2010 at the height of Western concerns over Iran’s program. Israel never claimed responsibility for the attacks, though Israeli officials have boasted in the past about the reach of the country’s intelligence services. Israel last year said it seized records from a “secret atomic archive” in Iran.

Reuters contributed to this report