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Iran says uranium enrichment at higher level than before 2015 pact

Cascade of gas centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium. (U.S. Department of Energy Archives/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

President Hassan Rohani says Iran is now enriching more uranium than the country did before it agreed to a nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, as Tehran gradually scales back its commitments under the agreement.

“Pressure has increased on Iran, but we continue to progress,” Rohani said in a televised speech on January 16, insisting that Tehran is not considering a full withdrawal from the nuclear accord. The country has lifted all limits on its production of enriched uranium, which can be used to make reactor fuel but also nuclear weapons.

Iran has breached its main limitations, exceeding the stockpiles of heavy water and uranium allowed, the number and types of centrifuges it can operate to enrich uranium, and the purity of uranium, in response to sanctions reinstated by the United States after President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the nuclear agreement in 2018.

Trump wants Tehran to negotiate a new accord that would place indefinite curbs on its nuclear program and restrict Tehran’s ballistic-missile program.

The five remaining parties to the accord — Britain, France, and Germany, plus China and Russia — have pledged to keep the accord alive.

But European partners have been unable to offer Tehran a way to sell its crude oil abroad despite the U.S. sanctions, which caused the value of Iran’s currency to plummet and sent its inflation rate soaring.

Announcing they had triggered the 2015 deal’s Dispute Recognition Mechanism on January 14, Britain, France, and Germany warned that Tehran’s actions were “inconsistent with the provisions of the nuclear agreement” and had “increasingly severe and non-reversible proliferation implications.”

The EU’s diplomatic chief, Josep Borrell, met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of a conference in India on January 16 to press Tehran to “preserve” the increasingly fragile nuclear agreement, according to a statement released in Brussels.

Borrell told Zarif that the deal was “more important than ever” given rising tensions in the Middle East, the statement said.

Earlier in the day, Zarif said Britain, France, and Germany were allowing themselves to be bullied by the United States, which had threatened new tariffs on their goods.

“E3 sold out remnants of JCPOA to avoid new Trump tariffs,” he wrote in a tweet, referring to the nuclear accord.

“It won’t work my friends. You only whet his appetite. Remember your high school bully?” Zarif added.

He continued by telling Europeans: “If you want to sell your integrity, go ahead. But DO NOT assume high moral/legal ground. YOU DON’T HAVE IT.”

The Trump administration has threatened to impose a 25 percent tariff on European automobile imports if Britain, France, and Germany did not formally accuse Iran of breaking the nuclear pact, the Washington Post reported on January 15.

In a speech on January 15, Rohani criticized the European powers’ decision and their failure to ensure his country enjoyed the economic benefits of the 2015 deal.

“The next step you need to take is to return to your commitments,” the Iranian president said, while Zarif asserted that the nuclear deal was “not dead.”

Under the 2015 pact, Iran pledged to curb its nuclear ambitions in exchange for international sanctions relief.

Tehran, which insists its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, announced that the final limit on its production of enriched uranium had been lifted earlier this month, days after top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

In retaliation, Iran on January 8 fired ballistic missiles at two bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq.

Hours after the missile attack, a Ukrainian passenger airliner was shot down by Iran’s air defenses after it took off from Tehran, killing all 176 people on board.

Rohani said in his speech on January 16 that his government was “working daily to prevent military confrontation or war.”

He also said that dialogue with the international community was difficult but remained “possible.”