Iran has announced it will begin enriching uranium beyond the limit set in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers “in a few hours”.
The move on Sunday was part of an Iranian effort to press Europe to salvage the accord after the United States pulled out last year and reimposed punishing sanctions on Tehran, including on its oil and banking sectors.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s atomic agency, said technical preparations for the new level of enrichment would be completed “within a few hours and enrichment over 3.67 percent will begin”.
“And tomorrow early in the morning, when the IAEA [UN nuclear watchdog] takes the sample we would have gone beyond 3.67 percent,” he told reporters in Tehran.
Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said Tehran would keep reducing its commitments every 60 days unless signatories of the pact protected it from US sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump.
The landmark accord, negotiated in 2015, had offered Iran relief from global sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme. Under the pact, Iran agreed to enrich uranium to no more than 3.67 percent, which is enough for power generation, but far below weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.
Iran denies it seeks nuclear weapons, but the nuclear deal sought to prevent that as a possibility by limiting enrichment and Tehran’s stockpile of uranium to 300kg. On July 1, Iran and United Nations inspectors acknowledged Tehran had amassed more low-enriched uranium than the stockpile cap agreed under the nuclear deal.
“We are fully prepared to enrich uranium at any level and with any amount,” Kamalvandi said on Sunday.
‘Another step in 60 days’
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani initially flagged Tehran’s intentions to reduce its commitments on May 8, exactly a year after Trump abandoned the deal.
The US leader then reimposed sanctions on Iran saying he wanted to negotiate a new deal that also addressed Tehran’s ballistic missiles programme and support for armed groups in the Middle East.
The pact’s remaining signatories – United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China – opposed the US move, but have struggled to deliver on the economic benefits promised to Iran.
“European countries have failed to uphold their commitments and they are also responsible,” Araghchi told the news conference in Tehran. “The doors of diplomacy are open but what matters are new initiatives which are required.”
There was political will in Europe to save the deal, he said, referring to a new payment mechanism known as INSTEX, which is meant to help Iran bypass US sanctions. However, the trade channel was “not going to work unless European countries use it to buy Iranian oil”, he said.
He added: “This is an opportunity for talks. And if our partners fail to use this opportunity they should not doubt our determination to leave the deal.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a Twitter post, said all of Tehran’s moves were “reversible” if European countries upheld their commitments.
The three EU signatories “have no pretext to avoid a firm political stance to preserve JCPOA & counter US unilateralism,” he added, referring to the nuclear deal by its formal name, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Iranian officials have previously stressed that all the moves announced so far could be reversed “in hours” if the other parties to the nuclear deal were to make good on their side of the bargain – relief from sanctions.
They also say Iran is not violating the deal, citing terms of the agreement allowing one side to temporarily abandon some of its commitments if it deems the other side is not respecting its part of the accord.
‘Too little creativity’
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a US think tank, said Europe has so far “shown too little creativity and too little backbone” in salvaging the 2015 deal.
“It has been far more focused on adhering to Trump’s sanctions – even though it opposes them – than on adhering to its obligations under the JCPOA. That’s not a formula that will ensure the survival of the JCPOA,” he told Al Jazeera.
“At this point, unless Europe returns to trading with Iran at pre-sanctions levels, it is difficult to see how the JCPOA can be kept alive.”
Responding to the latest developments on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for sanctions saying Tehran was moving towards an atomic bomb. “This is a very, very dangerous step,” Netanyahu said in public remarks to his cabinet.
“I call on my friends, the heads of France, Britain and Germany – you signed this deal and you said that as soon as they take this step, severe sanctions will be imposed – that was the Security Council resolution. Where are you?” he said.
However, Francois Nicoullaud, former French ambassador to Iran, said Tehran was a long way away from a bomb.
“There is no immediate danger,” he told Al Jazeera from Toulon in France. “To produce a bomb, one needs at least a tonne of uranium enriched to up to 90 percent. We are still very far from this quantity of uranium.
“Another factor which would be very dangerous would be if Iran expels the international nuclear inspectors who are precisely controlling the nature and extent of its programme. This is what North Korea did in 2002, and that opened the way to a bomb. But until now, we have no signal in this direction from Iran.”
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday told Rouhani of his “strong concern” over the risk of weakening the nuclear agreement and the consequences that would follow during a telephone call, according to a statement from the Elysee Palace.
However, the two leaders agreed to “explore by July 15 the conditions for a resumption of dialogue between all parties”, the statement said, adding that Macron would consult with Iranian authorities and international partners to bring about the “necessary de-escalation” of the situation over the coming days.