Iran threatens to breach nuclear deal enrichment limits

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Iran said it would soon exceed limits on its enriched uranium stockpile agreed in a nuclear deal with world powers, increasing the urgency of European efforts to save the landmark accord. The breach, which Tehran said would happen within 10 days, threatens to push the 2015 agreement to total collapse following US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the pact last year. It will also stoke already elevated tensions between the Islamic republic and Washington. The White House responded to Iran’s announcement on Monday by accusing it of engaging in “nuclear blackmail”. “We will go further from that ceiling, not only that but we will also increase production drastically. After we pass the limit of 300kg the pace and the speed of enriched uranium production at the lower rate will also increase,” Kamalvandi said.

What is enriched uranium?

Enriched uranium is produced by feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges to separate out the most fissile isotope, U-235. Under the nuclear deal, Iran is only permitted to produce low-enriched uranium, which has a 3-4% concentration of U-235 and can be used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants. “Weapons-grade” uranium is 90% enriched or more.

Why has Iran increased its enrichment rate?

Iran has complained that European powers have failed to abide by their commitments to mitigate the effects on its economy of the sanctions that US President Donald Trump reinstated after abandoning the nuclear deal last year. Mr Trump wants to force Iran to renegotiate the accord and agree to curb its ballistic missile programme and end its “malign” activities in the Middle East. The Europeans have set up a “special purpose vehicle” that would essentially allow goods to be bartered between Iranian and foreign companies without direct financial transactions. But the mechanism – known as Instex – is not yet operational. Mr Kamalvandi also said Iran might start enriching uranium up to 5% concentration so that it could provide fuel for its Bushehr power plant, or even up to the 20% concentration required for the Tehran research reactor.

Experts say the technical leap required to get to 90% concentration from 20% is relatively straightforward, because it becomes easier at higher levels. Going from the natural state of 0.7% concentration to 20% takes 90% of the total energy required. Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

Gulf tensions

Responding to announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Iran to be hit with sanctions if it violated the 2015 accord. “Should Iran make good on its current threats and violate the nuclear agreement, the international community will need to immediately impose the sanctions regime that was agreed upon in advance, the ‘snapback sanctions’,” Netanyahu said.

Iran’s move comes amid rising tensions in the Gulf after a series of unexplained attacks on ships and infrastructure in the region, which the US has blamed on Iran or its proxies. Two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last Thursday reported explosions on board that sparked fires with the crews abandoning the vessels. The US accused Iran of attacking the ships. The US military last week released a grainy video it said showed an Iranian boat removing an unexploded mine as part of its proof of Tehran’s involvement.  US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was other evidence beyond the video to show it was “unmistakable” that Iran was responsible for the suspected attacks. In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Pompeo said Washington did not seek war with Tehran. Saudi Arabia and Britain have backed the US claims. European Union foreign ministers, meeting on Monday said they are still looking for more information on who might be behind the attacks, and called for restraint.

The escalating tensions have caused a spike in oil prices and concerns of a conflict in the region.

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