Iran has announced it will begin enriching uranium beyond the 3.67 percent cap set in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers “in a few hours”.
The move on Sunday is part of an effort to press Europe to salvage the accord after the United States pulled out and reimposed punishing sanctions on Iran, including on its oil and banking sectors.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s atomic agency, said technical preparations for the new level of enrichment would be completed “within a few hours and enrichment over 3.67 percent will begin”.
Monitoring will show the increased level by Monday morning, he told reporters in Tehran.
The landmark accord offered Iran relief from global sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme. Under the pact, Iran agreed to enrich uranium to no more than 3.67 percent, which is enough for power generation, but far below weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.
Iran denies it seeks nuclear weapons, but the nuclear deal sought to prevent that as a possibility by limiting enrichment and Tehran’s stockpile of uranium to 300 kg.
On July 1, Iran andUnited Nationsinspectors acknowledged Tehran had amassed more low-enriched uranium than the stockpile cap permitted under the nuclear deal.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani initially flagged Tehran’s intentions to reduce its commitments on May 8, exactly a year on from US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoning the multilateral deal.
Washington pulled out of the deal and reimposed sanctions saying it wanted to negotiate a new deal that also addressed Iran’s ballistic missiles programme and support for armed groups in the Middle East.
‘Another step in 60 days’
Speaking on Sunday, Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said his country was taking the additional step on uranium enrichment because of the pact’s remaining signatories’ failure to shield it from US sanctions and selling its oil.
Araghchi said Iran would announce a scale back of other commitments in 60 days if there was no further progress.
“This is to protect the nuclear deal, not to nullify it,” he said at the news conference. “This is an opportunity for talks. And if our partners fail to use this opportunity they should not doubt our determination to leave the deal.”
The US could also join such talks if it lifted the reinstated sanctions, said Araghchi.
There was political will in Europe to save the deal, he continued, referring to a new payment mechanism known as Instex, which is meant to help Iran bypass US sanctions. However, the trade channel was “not going to work unless European countries use it to buy Iranian oil,” he said.
“But they are trying to help us. We are hoping to reach a solution. Otherwise, within 60 days we will take another step.”
Araghchi did not elaborate on what those steps would be, but said Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has outlined the areas in which Tehran would reduce its nuclear deal commitments in a letter to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief.
Iranian officials have previously stressed that all the moves announced so far could be reversed “in hours” if the other parties to the nuclear deal were to make good on their side of the bargain – relief from sanctions.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron told his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, of his “strong concern” over the risk of weakening the nuclear agreement and the consequences that would follow, according to a statement from the Elysee Palace on Saturday.
The two leaders agreed to “explore by July 15 the conditions for a resumption of dialogue between all parties”, the statement said, adding that Macron would consult with Iranian authorities and international partners to bring about the “necessary de-escalation” of the situation over the coming days.