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Iran threatens to enrich uranium to 20% purity as tensions rise

Iran's Atomic Energy Organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi, left, and government spokesman Ali Rabiei address the press in Tehran on Sunday. (AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Iran said it had already begun enriching uranium beyond the cap set in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal and threatened to boost enrichment to 20% purity, escalating tensions with European partners who are struggling to salvage the accord in the face of tightening U.S. sanctions.

Iran announced on Sunday that it would abandon the 3.67% limit for uranium enrichment as it scales back its commitments in response to U.S. penalties reimposed after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement last year. It said more steps would be taken to scale back compliance every 60 days unless European parties find ways to ensure it can continue to trade its oil.

“Earlier today, the level of enrichment reached 4.5%,” Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told the state-run Iranian Students News Agency. In a separate report, Kamalvandi said Tehran may consider boosting enrichment to as much as 20% purity or using more advanced centrifuges at a later stage. It’s “among the options considered,” he said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. Centrifuges are fast-spinning machines used to enrich uranium.

Uranium must be enriched to 90% to build weapons, though lower levels would be considered significant.

“Under President Donald Trump, America will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon,” Vice President Mike Pence told a convention of evangelical Christians who support Israel in Washington on Monday. He boasted that “we have reimposed every last sanction that was lifted” under the nuclear accord.

The latest slew of announcements from Tehran raises pressure on European nations who’ve urged it to stick with a multi-party deal that the U.S. has shunned but have struggled to come up with a vehicle that would allow the Iranians to keep selling their oil.

Iran is producing oil at the slowest clip since 1986, making U.S. sanctions as effective as the devastating Iraq-Iran war that ended more than 30 years ago. The measures have hit the currency, fueled inflation and set back growth in a country where government revenues are heavily dependent on oil sales.

The “maximum pressure” policy, which U.S. officials say is designed to push the Iranians back to the negotiating table, has instead weakened the hand of moderate President Hassan Rouhani and prompted Iranian officials to dig in.

The latest measures are likely to stoke further friction with the U.S., which has accused the Islamic Republic of being behind a spate of attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz shipping chokepoint. Iran denies any wrongdoing.

Tensions with the U.K. have also spiked in recent days after it seized a supertanker off the coast of Gibraltar that it said was carrying Iranian oil to Syria in violation of European and U.S. sanctions against that war-torn country Mediterranean country. Iran said the tanker was in international waters, not headed to Syria and likened the U.K.’s action to “piracy.”

The diplomatic row exacerbated frictions just as the three European nations remaining in the nuclear deal, which include the U.K., seek to prevent Iran from walking away.

In the year since the U.S. pulled out of the deal, France, Germany and the U.K. have managed to deliver a financial channel known as Instex that aims to protect some trade with Iran — initially only food and medicine — from U.S. penalties. But Iran is seeking a trade vehicle that can also be used to buy oil.

European nations have urged Iran to reverse the measures it has taken but have stopped short of calling for renewed sanctions.

“We are extremely concerned” by announcements made by Iran regarding the start of the uranium enrichment above the agreed limit of 3.67%, European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said on Monday. “We have called on Iran not to take further measures that undermine the nuclear deal and we now strongly urge Iran to stop and reverse all activities that are inconsistent with the commitments made under the JCPOA.”

Iran has held open the door to negotiations with the Europeans but has refused to resume talks with the U.S. unless it eases sanctions first. The Trump administration has said it is keeping up the pressure because it wants to negotiate a tougher deal that would also restrict Iran’s missile program and support for proxy militias around the Middle East.

“If the countries remaining in the agreement, in particular the Europeans, don’t honor their commitments and just talk, we will take the next step with determination,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said in a press conference aired live on state television. “We will take the next step in 60 days — we are still reviewing.”


(Nasseri reported from Dubai, Sebenius from Washington. Richard Bravo contributed to this report.)


© 2019 Bloomberg News

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