Iran nuclear pact in peril

Iran nuclear pact in peril

Teheran confirms uranium enrichment beyond 2015 cap, says Europe needs to respond soon

Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, gives a briefing as advanced centrifuges are displayed in front of him, in Teheran on Saturday. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)
Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, gives a briefing as advanced centrifuges are displayed in front of him, in Teheran on Saturday. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

DUBAI: Iran says it is now capable of raising uranium enrichment past 20% and, while it has no immediate plans to do, the clock is ticking toward the point where a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers could not be salvaged.

“We have started lifting limitations on our research and development imposed by the deal. … It will include development of more rapid and advanced centrifuges,” Iranian nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said at a televised news conference on Saturday.

“The European parties to the deal should know that there is not much time left, and if there is some action to be taken (to salvage the nuclear deal), it should be done quickly.”

The 2015 pact curbed Iran’s disputed nuclear programme in exchange for relief from sanctions, but has unravelled since the United States pulled out of the pact last year and acted to strangle Iran’s oil trade to push it to make wider security concessions.

Since May, Iran has begun to scale back its commitments to the pact in retaliation for US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign intended to force Teheran back into negotiations.

Iran says its measures are reversible if the European side find a way to protect its vital oil exports from Washington’s sanctions.

The 2015 deal capped the number of centrifuge enrichment machines installed in Iran at roughly 6,000, down from 19,000 before 2015. It allows Iran to refine uranium only with first-generation IR-1 centrifuges and to use small numbers of more advanced centrifuges solely for research, but without stockpiling enriched uranium, for a period of 10 years.

“Machines developed by our own research and development will help accumulate reserves. This was done yesterday and announced to the IAEA today,” Kamalvandi said, referring to the UN nuclear watchdog which is monitoring compliance with the deal.

“This includes IR-6 machines which have now been fed (uranium) gas. A chain of 20 IR-4 centrifuges has also been started. The IR-6 has also started as a chain of 20 since yesterday,” he said. “We will soon test our IR-8 centrifuge cascade by injecting gas into 3 IR-8 machines.”

Advanced centrifuges can enrich at a much faster pace.

The accord also capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for centrifuges, at 3.67%, which is suitable for civilian power generation and far below the 90 threshold of nuclear weapons grade.

The 20% level represents a significant leap towards bomb material, though Iran has argued that it could be put to running its Bushehr nuclear power reactor.

“The UN nuclear watchdog has been informed about our new nuclear steps and it still has access to our nuclear sites,” Kamalvandi said.

France, Germany and Britain have struggled to save the deal by setting up a barter trade mechanism with Iran but it has yet to get off the ground and Teheran on Wednesday set a 60-day deadline for the Europeans.

“We do not currently intend to make any changes to IAEA inspections and our transparency obligations are being met as before,” Kamalvandi said.

“[But] when the other sides do not carry out their commitments, they should not expect Iran to fulfil its commitments” to limit nuclear capacity set by the deal.

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