Iran said it was no longer abiding by limits imposed on its uranium enrichment and centrifuge research by the 2015 nuclear accord, throwing down a new challenge to European leaders struggling to sustain their diplomatic push to calm the Gulf.
The Islamic Republic will forge ahead with plans to develop its advanced centrifuges and has started injecting them with gas, Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said on Saturday at a press conference. That’s a breach of a time-frame agreed within the deal that aimed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
He said that while Iran will “set aside” restrictions on uranium enrichment it has no need as yet to enrich uranium beyond 20%, a level limited by the nuclear accord and required for research reactors. Weapons-grade uranium needs to have an enrichment level of 90% or more. Injecting advanced “IR-6” centrifuges -- a chain of 20 of which Iran installed in April -- with gas is a step Iran is allowed to take 11 years into the implementation of the nuclear deal, Kamalvandi said.
Centrifuges are fast-spinning machines used to enrich uranium, and the latest statement by Iran is likely to trigger claims by its foes in Washington and the Middle East that the Islamic Republic is intent on rebuilding an atomic program capable of producing nuclear weapons.
Iran’s stockpiles of low-enriched uranium are likely to see a “high jump” in coming weeks as a result of the measures announced on Saturday, Kamalvandi said. Iran breached a 300-kilogram limit on stockpiles of the material in early July.
“I’m not surprised that Iran has announced that it’s going to violate” the nuclear deal, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a press conference with his French counterpart Florence Parly in Paris shortly after Iran’s announcement.
Parly, whose country is leading a European attempt at salvaging the deal with a plan that requires the U.S. to ease sanctions on Iranian oil exports, said diplomatic efforts will continue in order to “get Iran to come back into compliance.”
Iran has been scaling back its compliance to the terms of the beleaguered deal since May as it pushes back against the “maximum pressure” offensive of U.S. President Donald Trump, who unilaterally left the accord last year.
Kamalvandi said that while its latest actions may amount to Iran ceasing compliance to technical aspects of the accord, they were “reversible within a day” and the agreement itself remained intact.
“Iran’s breaches are still easy to reverse,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said in an email. “But the more they step away from their commitments, the harder it will become to restore status quo ante. In that sense, U.S. criticism of what the nuclear might allow in 10 or 15 years can backfire with a crisis today.”
“Iran’s logic seems straightforward: If its leaders ever agree to negotiate with an administration that is holding a gun to their heads, they will do so only after first having restored their leverage by partially resuscitating its nuclear program,” he said.
Russia, a signatory of the original deal along with the U.S., France, the U.K., China and Germany, played down concerns over Iran’s move. “The decision of Iran to use more advanced centrifuges shouldn’t be over-dramatized,” the Russian ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, said on Twitter. While conceding that it marks “another deviation” from the Iran nuclear deal, the Russian diplomat said it isn’t a proliferation threat but “a strong signal” that the agreement must be revived.
Iran will not take any action against international nuclear inspections or the work of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Kamalvandi said, adding that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of Iran’s atomic organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, will meet with the acting Director General of the IAEA, Cornel Feruta, on Sunday.
“The EU said it would fulfill its commitments under the nuclear deal and it’s supposed to live up to that. This is meant to make them think. If they refer to their conscience they will realize that the Islamic Republic has made good on all of its obligations and it’s they who haven’t fulfilled all their commitments and it’s they who need to take action,” Kamalvandi said, adding that new centrifuges will not be installed at its Fordow uranium enrichment plant.
U.S. sanctions have targeted Iran’s vital oil exports and a French proposal orchestrated by President Emmanuel Macron to deliver the economic benefits demanded by Iran, and in turn salvage the deal, includes a $15 billion credit line against which Tehran can sell crude.
But the plan would require Trump, who is trying to wipe out Iran’s oil revenue, to approve sanctions waivers -- an idea his advisers have so far dismissed. Rather than easing up, the U.S. is adding new sanctions.
For its part, China has supported European efforts to find some way for Iran to sell its oil and has looked to shore up relations with Tehran at a time when American companies are being forced to shun business with the country because of the U.S. sanction regime. “An absence of U.S. competition in the Iranian economy is also an opportunity for companies from other countries and regions, including China,” the state-run Global Times newspaper wrote on Aug. 27.
The 2015 nuclear accord was designed to ensure that even if Iran broke out of the deal, it would need at least a year to restore the capacity and material needed for a weapon. Iran, which says its nuclear work is aimed solely at addressing its energy and medical needs, forfeited some 97% of its enriched uranium and mothballed three-quarters of the industrial capacity needed to refine the heavy metal.
Iran’s latest measures were signaled by President Hassan Rouhani this week, in a speech that mixed defiance and an apparent unwillingness to collapse the accord entirely.
In recent months, Iran has broken restrictions on the size and purity of its enriched uranium stockpile. At the same time, unexplained attacks on ships in the Persian Gulf and the tit-for-tat seizing of oil tankers by the U.K. and Iranian forces raised fears of military conflict.