Iran’s supreme leader makes uranium enrichment threat

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran’s supreme leader issued a veiled threat in the same speech in which he stated that “no one is seeking war”, saying it wouldn’t be difficult for the republic to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels amid rising tensions with the United States (US), state media reported yesterday.

The US Embassy in Baghdad, meanwhile, ordered all non-essential, non-emergency government staff yesterday to leave Iraq immediately amid escalating tensions with Iran. Washington did not publicly provide any evidence to back up claims of an increased threat from Tehran.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s comments on Tuesday came after Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched a coordinated drone attack on a critical oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia. A satellite image obtained by The Associated Press shows one of the two pumping stations attacked by the drones apparently intact.

The drone assault is just the latest incident in the Mideast to shake global energy markets, as authorities allege oil tankers anchored off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were targeted by sabotage. Benchmark Brent crude prices remained around USD71 a barrel in early trading yesterday.

The US also is deploying an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers into the region in response to the still-unspecified Iran threat, further ramping up tensions a year after US President Donald Trump withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with governmental officials in Tehran, Iran. – AP

Speaking on Tuesday night in Tehran at an iftar, the traditional dinner Muslims have when breaking their day-long fast during the holy month of Ramadhan, Khamenei’s reported comments first focussed on him downplaying the chances of a wider conflict in the Middle East with America.

He reportedly told senior officials that his country won’t negotiate with the US, calling such talks “poison”. But he also said, “Neither we, nor them is seeking war. They know that it is not to their benefit.”

In yesterday’s edition, the state-run IRAN newspaper carried his comments on the nuclear programme, his first since Iran announced it would begin backing away from the accord itself.

Tehran is threatening to resume higher enrichment in 60 days if no new nuclear deal is in place, beyond the 3.67 per cent permitted by the current deal between Tehran and the world powers.

Iranian officials have said that they could reach 20 per cent enrichment within four days. Though Iran maintains its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, scientists said the time needed to reach the 90 per cent threshold for weapon-grade uranium is halved once uranium is enriched to around 20 per cent.

“Achieving 20 per cent enrichment is the most difficult part,” Khamenei said, according to the newspaper. “The next steps are easier than this step.”