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Iran passes uranium enrichment cap set by endangered deal

(Iran surpassing the uranium enrichment cap and reaching 4.5 percent enrichment was announced Monday. Photo: AFP)

TEHRAN, (AFP): Iran on Monday breached a uranium enrichment cap set by a troubled 2015 nuclear deal and warned Europe against taking retaliatory measures.

The move came more than a year after Washington pulled out of the landmark accord between world powers and Tehran, which says it has lost patience with perceived inaction by the remaining European partners.

Iran surpassing the cap and reaching 4.5 percent enrichment was announced Monday by the country’s atomic energy organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi.

“This level of purity completely satisfies the power plant fuel requirements of the country,” he said, quoted by semi-official ISNA news agency.

Kamalvandi hinted that the Islamic republic might stick to this level of enrichment for the time being, which is well below the more than 90-percent level required for a nuclear warhead.

The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said on Monday that it was aware of Iran’s announcement and was “in the process of verifying this development.”

Kamalvandi said that IAEA inspectors “are supposed to take samples” on Monday.

The European Union said it was “extremely concerned” by the development and called on Iran to “reverse all activities” inconsistent with its deal commitments.

France, Germany and Britain — the European partners of the international deal — on Sunday urged Tehran to halt its advance towards breaching the cap.

But Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi warned against any escalatory response.

If the Europeans “do certain strange acts then we would skip all the next steps (in the plan to scale back commitments) and implement the last one,” he said.

He did not specify what the final step would be but Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani had warned previously that Iran could leave the nuclear accord.

– ‘Bullying’ by the US –

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Sunday that Iran would face “further isolation and sanctions”.

China and Russia, the other deal partners, both blamed the United States for the latest step by Iran.

Beijing accused Washington of “unilateral bullying”, while Moscow said passing the cap was one of the “consequences” of the White House abandoning the deal.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on Sunday singled out declining oil sales and the effect of financial sanctions as the main issues that needed to be solved, or Tehran would further step back from its nuclear commitments.

“We hope we can reach a solution, otherwise after 60 days we will take the third step as well,” he said, adding that Tehran would give further details of that at an “opportune moment”.

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.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a key architect of the deal, said “all such steps are reversible” if European partners deliver on their part.

According to Middle East analyst Sanam Vakil, Europe would need to engage Iran and the US simultaneously to prevent the situation escalating even further.

“A ‘freeze for freeze’ is the most immediate goal; keeping Iran within the JPCOA and then sanctions relief from the Trump administration,” Vakil, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House think-tank in London, told AFP.

Rouhani in May flagged Tehran’s intentions to start enriching uranium above the agreed maximum purification level of 3.67 percent.

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed this month that Iran has exceeded a 300-kilogramme limit on enriched uranium reserves, a cap that was imposed by the deal.

The IAEA has scheduled a special meeting on Iran’s nuclear programme for July 10.

Published Date: Monday, July 8th, 2019 | 09:49 AM

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