Iran has accelerated the rate at which it’s enriching low-grade uranium fourfold, weeks after threatening to scale back its commitments under a 2015 deal meant to prevent it from developing a nuclear bomb.
The development could further heighten tensions in the Gulf, which have spiked since the U.S. stopped granting waivers to buyers of Iranian oil earlier this month, tightening sanctions slapped on the Islamic Republic after President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear accord a year ago.
The semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Behrouz Kamalvandi, an official at Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, as saying that Iran had increased its output of 3.67% enriched uranium as of Monday, and that the United Nations nuclear watchdog had been informed.
Iran would only be in contravention of its nuclear deal obligations once its stores of low-enriched uranium crossed a 300-kilogram threshold or it enriched to a higher level. Crucially, Kamalvandi said that the number of active centrifuges hadn’t been raised, and purer uranium wasn’t being produced.
“This issue does not mean that there is an increase in the purity of the material or that there’s an increase in the number of centrifuge machines or that there’s a change in the type of centrifuges,” he said, according to Tasmin.
The Trump administration revoked this month two waivers that had enabled Iran to send surplus heavy water to Oman and ship out any enriched uranium above the 300 kg limit in exchange for natural or “yellowcake” uranium. Those measures undermined Iran’s ability to dispose of excess materials, forcing it to choose either between stopping enrichment, as the Trump administration wants, or abandoning its commitment to the storage threshold.
With an economic crisis looming, Iran announced on May 8 it would gradually withdraw from the nuclear agreement unless the remaining parties find a way to ease its pain. It said it had stopped complying with the 300-kg cap and that it would abandon other limits on uranium enrichment unless Europe throws it an economic lifeline within 60 days, setting an ultimatum for the survival of the landmark pact.
The terms of the nuclear deal still permit Iran to sell its excess enriched uranium to an IAEA-controlled storage facility in Kazakhstan.
The U.S. accelerated the dispatch of an aircraft carrier and moved B-52 bombers to the region in recent weeks, citing unspecified threats from Iran and its proxies.
Concerns over a possible military confrontation rose after so far unexplained sabotage attacks against four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, heading toward the Gulf, and a drone attack by Iran-backed Yemeni rebels against Saudi pumping stations which forced the temporary suspension of an east-west pipeline.
On Wednesday, the U.S. cited growing yet unspecified threats as it ordered the departure of non-emergency staff from Iraq, where Iran provides material and political support to several powerful militias.
Though all sides have said they do not want war, heightened tensions have rattled oil markets and become a subject of debate at a meeting of OPEC oil exporters taking place in the Saudi city of Jeddah. Iran says that its nuclear program is for civilian energy and medical uses and that it has never sought nuclear weapons.
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