Iran ratchets up tensions with higher enrichment, draws warnings
Reuters, Sunday 7 Jul 2019


Iran announced on Sunday it will shortly boost its uranium enrichment above a cap set by a landmark 2015 nuclear deal, a major breach likely to draw a tougher reaction from President Donald Trump who has pressured Tehran to renegotiate the pact.

In a sign of heightening tensions, France, Germany and Britain -- all parties to the deal -- expressed concerns over Tehran's decision.

In a live news conference, senior Iranian officials said Tehran would keep reducing its commitments every 60 days, unless European signatories of the pact protect it from U.S. sanctions imposed by President Trump.

"We are fully prepared to enrich uranium at any level and with any amount," said Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation.

"In a few hours the technical process will come to an end and the enrichment beyond 3.67% will begin," referring to the limit set in the 2015 agreement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the step was extremely dangerous and again called on Europe to impose punitive sanctions on Tehran, raising the prospect of fresh regional tensions. "The enrichment of uranium is made for one reason and one reason only - it's for the creation of atomic bombs," he said.

Tehran shows no sign of caving in to pressure from Trump in a confrontation that has taken on a military dimension, with Washington blaming Tehran for attacks on oil tankers, and Iran shooting down a U.S. drone, prompting aborted U.S. air strikes.

The Europeans, who object to Trump's withdrawal from the deal last year, have so far failed to salvage the pact by shielding Iran's limping economy from U.S. sanctions.

French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Iran's decision as a "violation" of the pact which the United States pulled out of last year.

Iran has broken the terms of the deal and must immediately stop and reverse its activities, a spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office said on Sunday.

"While the UK remains fully committed to the deal, Iran must immediately stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its obligations," said the Foreign Office spokesman.

A German foreign ministry spokesman gave a similar response.

Space for talks?

Iran did leave some room for negotiations.

All measures taken by Iran to scale back its commitments to the nuclear deal were "reversible" if the European signatories of the pact fulfilled their obligations, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday.

The Iran nuclear deal dispute resolution mechanism will not be triggered for now, said a source at Macron's Elysee office. The French government is giving itself until July 15 to try to get all parties talking again.

Under that so-called snapback, if a series of steps designed to resolve differences fails, sanctions in all previous U.N. resolutions would be re-imposed.

Inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog who are in Iran will report back once they have checked that Tehran has enriched uranium to a higher level of purity than that allowed under its nuclear deal, the agency said

Daniel Byman, senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said Iran was engaged in a tricky balancing act.

“The step is meant to show domestic audiences that Iran is standing up to U.S. pressure. It is also meant to convey a sense of risk to European audiences that Iran may provoke a crisis," he said.

Under the pact, Iran can enrich uranium to 3.67% fissile material, well below the 20% it was reaching before the deal and the roughly 90% suitable for a nuclear weapon.

Kamalvandi said Iran would enrich uranium for use in fuelling its Bushehr power plant, to the level of 5%, confirming what Reuters reported on Saturday.

Pressure on Europeans

Long-tense relations between Tehran and Washington deteriorated in May 2018 when Trump withdrew from the deal reached before he took office, and reimposed sanctions - saying the agreement did not go far enough, and did not address Iran's missile programme or its policies in the Middle East.

Tehran says its missile programme is defensive.

Iran has expressed frustration over what it says is the failure of parties to the agreement to salvage the pact - signed along with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia - by protecting Iran's economic interests from U.S. sanctions.

"European countries have failed to uphold their commitments and they are also responsible," Abbas Araqchi, Iran's senior nuclear negotiator, told the news conference in Tehran.

"The doors of diplomacy are open but what matters are new initiatives which are required."

Under the 2015 deal between Iran and six powers, most international sanctions against Tehran were lifted in return for limitations on its nuclear work.

Iran's main demand - in talks with the European parties to the deal and as a precondition to any talks with the United States - is to be allowed to sell its oil at the levels before Washington pulled out of the agreement and restored sanctions.

"The Iranian government is trying to create a crisis that will force a multilateral negotiation without precipitating a war," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.Iran said on Sunday it would further scale back its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, raising its uranium enrichment level beyond agreed levels to produce fuel for power plants.

The announcement, confirming what Reuters reported on Saturday, signaled a growing challenge to escalating U.S. sanctions pressure.

In a news conference, senior Iranian officials said Tehran would keep reducing its commitments every 60 days, unless signatories of the pact moved to protect it from U.S. sanctions, but they left the door open to diplomacy.

Before the deal was sealed, Iran produced 20% enriched uranium needed to fuel its Tehran reactor and the level of enrichment for its southern Bushehr nuclear power plant was 5%.

"We will enrich uranium based on our needs ... right now we don't need to enrich uranium needed for Tehran reactor," said Behrouz Kamalvandi, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization spokesman.

"We will enrich uranium to the level that is needed for the Bushehr reactor."

In a sign of heightening Western concern, French President Emmanuel Macron said he and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani had agreed to seek conditions for a resumption of dialogue on the Iranian nuclear question by July 15.

Macron's office added that he would keep on talking with Iranian authorities and other involved parties to "engage in a de-escalation of tensions related to Iranian nuclear issue."

Long-tense relations between Tehran and Washington took a turn for the worse in May 2018 when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal reached before he took office, and reimposed sanctions.

Under the pact, Iran can enrich uranium to 3.67% fissile material, well below the 20% it was reaching before the deal and the roughly 90% suitable for a nuclear weapon.

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