The United Nations’ atomic watchdog confirmed Monday that Iran has started enriching uranium at levels that breach the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers – a move that could spark new U.S. reaction over the deal it abandoned a year ago and adds fresh pressure on France, Britain and Germany to salvage the accord.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a brief statement that Iran is enriching uranium above 3.67%. It did not specify how far beyond the threshold Iran went.
State media in Iran earlier reported the country started enriching to 4.5%, breaking the limit set four years ago in the deal with the U.S., European countries, China and Russia, but still below the 90% enrichment most scientists agree is considered weapons-grade.
Speaking in Tehran, foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told reporters Monday that Iran won’t offer any further “deadlines” to save the deal by September, but that Iran is still open to negotiation with European nations and expressed hope they would “take steps forward” toward implementing their commitments. These commitments include finding a way to offset the impact of the Trump administration’s renewed sanctions on Iran that have crippled its economy and curtailed its lucrative oil exports.
Iran had previously breached the deal’s limits on uranium stockpiling as a result of U.S. sanctions, and Monday’s announcement was widely expected.
Joe Cirincione, president of the global security foundation Ploughshares, says the increased enrichment means Iran is beginning to narrow the time it would need to pursue a nuclear weapon – it says it isn’t and has no nuclear weapons program – to as little as a year. If it again increases enrichment, the window could narrow further.
President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal and renewed the sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran.
Trump nearly bombed Iran last month after Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone. Oil tankers in the Persian Gulf have been sabotaged and Britain recently seized an Iranian oil tanker bound for Syria in the Mediterranean Sea near Gibraltar, a move that has angered Iran and led to a call for retaliation.
“What I want to emphasize is the ‘maximum pressure’ the U.S. imposes on Iran is the root cause of the crisis in the Iranian nuclear issue,” Geng Shuang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said Monday. “It has been proven unilateral bullying has become a worsening tumor and is creating more problems and greater crises on a global scale.”
During remarks to a Christians United for Israel conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence said “there will be no more pallets of cash to the mullahs in Iran,” referring to the nation’s theocratic government.
“The previous administration’s so-called deal didn’t prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it simply delayed it for roughly a decade. In exchange, the deal gave away billions of dollars in cash sanctions really Iran has used to conduct more terrorist attacks on innocents across the region,” Pence said.
Wendy Sherman, a former U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs in President Barack Obama’s administration, said that what Iran has chosen to do with uranium enrichment is “reversible,” but that the increase in combination with stockpiling risks leading Iran and the U.S. down a “dangerous” path. She also emphasized that it was Trump who started the current cycle of increased tension by withdrawing from the deal.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Dangerous’ path: Iran breaches uranium enrichment level under nuclear deal