Iran to breach uranium enrichment cap in further escalation with US over nuclear deal, hints at exceeding limit up to 5%

Tehran: Iran says it intends to breach the uranium enrichment cap set by a landmark nuclear deal Sunday in a bid to press signatories to the endangered pact into keeping their side of the bargain.

The looming move — involving purifying beyond the 3.67 percent allowed by the 2015 agreement — was confirmed by President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday, despite opposition from the US and the EU.

He in effect made concrete a threat initially flagged by the Islamic Republic on 8 May, exactly a year on from US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoning the multilateral deal in May 2018.

 Iran to breach uranium enrichment cap in further escalation with US over nuclear deal, hints at exceeding limit up to 5%

File image of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. PTI

Rouhani said the planned move is in response to a failure by remaining state signatories to keep their promise to help Iran work around biting sanctions re-imposed by the US in the second half of last year. It is not yet clear how far the Islamic republic will boost enrichment.

But a top advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hinted on Friday it could reach five percent. Uranium enrichment "will increase as much as needed for our peaceful activities," said Ali Akbar Velayati, international affairs advisor to Khamenei, in an interview published on the supreme leader's website.

For the "Bushehr nuclear reactor we need five percent of enrichment and it is a completely peaceful goal," he added. Bushehr is Iran's only nuclear power station and runs on imported fuel from Russia that is closely monitored by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The 2015 deal was reached between Iran and six world powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, the US and Russia — and saw Iran agree to drastically scale down its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

The US began re-imposing sanctions in August 2018 and has targeted crucial sectors including oil exports and the banking system, fuelling a deep recession. The 3.67 percent enrichment limit set in the agreement is sufficient for power generation but far below the more than 90 percent level required for a nuclear warhead.

Rouhani stressed that Iran's action would be reversed if the other parties provided relief from the US sanctions. Iran's president insists that his country's policies are not meant to "hurt (the deal), but to preserve" it.

'Extremely concerned'

France has warned Tehran that it would "gain nothing" by leaving the deal and has said "challenging the agreement would only increase tensions" in West Asia.

Iran says that it is not violating the deal, citing terms of the agreement allowing one side to temporarily abandon some of commitments if it deems the other side is not respecting its part of the accord. The diplomatic chiefs of Britain, France, Germany and the EU have said they were "extremely concerned".

In a phone call with French president Emmanuel Macron on Saturday, Rouhani reiterated Iran's stance that US sanctions must be lifted, according to official news agency IRNA. It also reported that the Islamic Republic will hold a press conference on Sunday morning to flag "new decisions regarding reducing nuclear deal commitments."

Trump, meanwhile, has warned Iran that it is "playing with fire". And Iran's arch-foe Israel has called on the EU to impose sanctions on Tehran for abandoning its nuclear commitments.

Conversely, Russia voiced regret over Iran's move but said it was a consequence of US pressure pushing the deal towards collapse. The EU has urged Iran to remain committed to the deal — a position that Rouhani has taken issue with.

The agreement is "either good or bad. If it's good, everyone should stay committed to it," not just Iran, he said on Wednesday. For Velayati, Europe has "indirectly violated" the deal and Iran is going to "react exponentially as much as they violate it."

'Strategic patience'

Iran says it exercised "strategic patience" for a year after the US withdrawal, waiting for the other signatories to make good on promised economic benefits.

But on 8 May, Tehran announced it would no longer respect two key limits; a 1.3-ton maximum for heavy water reserves and a cap of 300 kilograms on its low-enriched uranium stockpile. The IAEA has in recent days confirmed that Iran has breached the limit of 300 kilograms and has scheduled a special meeting on Iran's nuclear programme for 10 July.

Also on 8 May, Tehran gave a 60-day ultimatum — a deadline that expires on Sunday — to deal partners to help it circumvent US sanctions, on pain of abandoning two more nuclear commitments. One was the enrichment cap. The other was a freeze on construction of a heavy water reactor.

Rouhani referenced the heavy water reactor Wednesday, telling critical powers "according to you, (this) is dangerous and can produce plutonium". Europe has sought to salvage the nuclear deal by setting up a payment mechanism known as INSTEX which is meant to help Iran skirt the US sanctions.

But Rouhani has dismissed the mechanism as "hollow", because it has not facilitated purchases of Iranian oil.

Updated Date: Jul 07, 2019 09:00:59 IST