Iran lifts uranium enrichment limits

URANIUM ENRICHMENT: Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, speaks to reporters in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 7. SalamPix/Abaca Press/Tribune News Service

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran said it was no longer abiding by limits imposed on its uranium enrichment and centrifuge research by the 2015 nuclear accord, throwing down a new challenge to European leaders struggling to sustain their diplomatic push to calm the Gulf.

The Islamic Republic will forge ahead with plans to develop its advanced centrifuges and has started injecting them with gas, Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said on Saturday at a news conference. That’s a breach of a time frame agreed within the deal that aimed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

He said that while Iran will “set aside” restrictions on uranium enrichment it has no need as yet to enrich uranium beyond 20%, a level limited by the nuclear accord and required for research reactors. Weapons-grade uranium needs to have an enrichment level of 90% or more. Injecting advanced IR-6 centrifuges — a chain of 20 of which Iran installed in April — with gas is a step Iran is allowed to take 11 years into the implementation of the nuclear deal, Kamalvandi said.

Centrifuges are fast-spinning machines used to enrich uranium, and the latest statement by Iran is likely to trigger claims by its foes in Washington and the Middle East that the Islamic Republic is intent on rebuilding an atomic program capable of producing nuclear weapons.

Iran’s stockpiles of low-enriched uranium are likely to see a “high jump” in coming weeks as a result of the measures announced on Saturday, Kamalvandi said. Iran breached a 300-kilogram limit on stockpiles of the material in early July.

“I’m not surprised that Iran has announced that it’s going to violate” the nuclear deal, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a news conference with his French counterpart, Florence Parly, in Paris shortly after Iran’s announcement.

Parly, whose country is leading a European attempt at salvaging the deal with a plan that requires the U.S. to ease sanctions on Iranian oil exports, said diplomatic efforts will continue in order to “get Iran to come back into compliance.”

Iran has been scaling back its compliance to the terms of the beleaguered deal since May as it pushes back against the “maximum pressure” offensive of President Donald Trump, who unilaterally left the accord last year.

Kamalvandi said that while its latest actions may amount to Iran ceasing compliance to technical aspects of the accord, they were “reversible within a day” and the agreement itself remained intact.

“Iran’s breaches are still easy to reverse,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said in an email. “But the more they step away from their commitments, the harder it will become to restore status quo ante. In that sense, U.S. criticism of what the nuclear might allow in 10 or 15 years can backfire with a crisis today.”

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