Iran set to exceed nuclear deal uranium enrichment cap

TEHRAN (AFP) – Iran said yesterday it was set to breach the uranium enrichment cap set by an endangered nuclear deal within hours as it seeks to press signatories into keeping their side of the bargain.

The country also threatened to abandon more commitments unless a solution is found with parties to the landmark 2015 agreement.

The move to start enriching uranium above the agreed maximum purification level of 3.67 per cent comes despite opposition from the European Union (EU) and the United States (US), which has quit the deal.

President Hassan Rouhani’s order to exceed the threshold would be implemented “in a few hours” after the last technical details were sorted, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said live on state television.

Rouhani initially flagged Tehran’s intentions on May 8, exactly a year on from US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoning the multilateral deal.

He has said the move is in response to a failure by remaining parties to keep their promise to help Iran work around biting sanctions reimposed by the US in the second half of last year.

Spokesman for Iran’s atomic agency Behrouz Kamalvandi. – AP

The arch-rivals have been locked in an escalating war of words with Washington blaming Iran for a series of attacks on tanker ships and Tehran shooting down an American surveillance drone, raising fears of a conflict that both sides have said they want to avoid.

Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi yesterday singled out Iran’s declining oil sales and the effect of financial sanctions as the main issues that needed to be solved, or Tehran would further step back from its nuclear commitments.

“We hope we can reach a solution otherwise after 60 days we will take the third step as well,” he said, adding that Tehran would give further details at an “opportune moment”.

Iran has previously threatened to also resume building a heavy water reactor – capable of one day producing plutonium – in Arak in central Iran, a project that had been mothballed under the agreement.

However since Iran delivered its ultimatum on the Arak reactor “good technical progress” had been made with parties to the deal on modernising the reactor, convincing Iran to postpone its decision, Araghchi said.

He added that Iran still wanted the deal to stay alive and there was time for Tehran to reverse the steps it has taken since May to scale down its commitments if its demands are met by the other parties.

The 2015 deal was reached between Iran and six world powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, the United States and Russia – and saw Tehran agree to drastically scale down its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

Washington began reimposing sanctions in August 2018 and has targetted crucial sectors including oil exports and the banking system, fuelling a deep recession.

It is not yet clear how far the Islamic republic will boost enrichment.

But a top advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hinted on Friday it could reach five per cent.

Kamalvandi said yesterday that Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation was fully ready to enrich uranium “at any amount and at any level” if ordered to do so.

The 3.67 per cent enrichment limit set in the agreement is sufficient for power generation but far below the more than 90 per cent level required for a nuclear warhead.