Iran threatens uranium enrichment if world powers do not keep promises under 2015 pact

AP, Kyodo, Reuters, AFP-JIJI

A year after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Tehran threatened Wednesday to resume higher enrichment of uranium in 60 days if world powers fail to negotiate new terms to the accord, raising tensions as a U.S. aircraft carrier and a bomber wing deploy to confront unspecified threats from Tehran.

In a televised address, President Hassan Rouhani also said Iran would stop exporting excess uranium and heavy water from its nuclear program — two requirements of the deal. He did not elaborate on the degree to which Iran is prepared to enrich uranium, which at high levels of enrichment can be used in nuclear weapons.

Rouhani said Iran wants to negotiate new terms with remaining partners in the deal but acknowledged that the situation is dire. “We felt that the nuclear deal needs a surgery, and the painkiller pills of the last year have been ineffective,” Rouhani said. “This surgery is for saving the deal, not destroying it.”

The 2015 deal lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. After the U.S. withdrew from the accord it restored crippling sanctions on Iran, exacerbating a severe economic crisis. The Iranian rial, which traded at 32,000 to the dollar at the time of the accord, traded Wednesday at 153,500.

The three European parties to the deal — the U.K., France and Germany — tried to save the accord with a trade mechanism meant to bypass reimposed U.S. sanctions, but their attempt was dismissed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as a “bitter joke.”

Iran notified the U.K., Russia, China, the European Union, France and Germany of its decision earlier Wednesday. All were signatories to the nuclear deal and continue to support it. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was to meet Wednesday in Moscow with his Russian counterpart.

“If the five countries join negotiations and help Iran to reach its benefits in the field of oil and banking, Iran will return to its commitments according to the nuclear deal,” Rouhani said.

However, Rouhani warned of a “strong reaction” if European leaders seek to impose more sanctions on Iran via the U.N. Security Council. He did not elaborate.Zarif issued his own warning from Moscow.

“After a year of patience, Iran stops measures that (the) US has made impossible to continue,” he tweeted. World powers have “a narrowing window to reverse this.”

Zarif stressed that Iran’s actions were not in breach of the nuclear deal, which U.N. inspectors have repeatedly certified its compliance with.

“We are not operating outside of the JCPOA (nuclear deal) but are in fact working in its framework,” he told state television.

Rouhani also said that if the 60 days pass without action, Iran will halt a Chinese-led effort to redesign its Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor. Such reactors produce plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons.

There was no immediate response from the U.S.

However, the White House said Sunday it would dispatch an aircraft carrier and a bomber wing to the Persian Gulf over what it described as a new threat from Iran.

On the eve of the Iranian announcement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Baghdad in an effort to consolidate relations as Washington pushes ahead with its “maximum pressure” against Tehran, an ally of Iraq.

Tokyo said it is closely following the situation and will use its amicable ties with Tehran to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East.

“We hope to use our traditionally friendly relations with Iran to solve problems through dialogue and achieve peace and stability in the region,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday, adding that Iran playing a “constructive” role is important.

“The Iranian government’s decision is not to withdraw from the nuclear agreement, and we take note of this point, he said at a news conference. “We will continue to monitor the situation carefully.”

Japan, a nonmember, has supported the 2015 deal, but the recent hardening of stance by the United States has put Tokyo in a difficult position as it seeks to maintain good relations with Tehran.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday that Iran had been provoked into rolling back some of the terms of the 2015 deal due to external pressure, which it blamed on the United States.

“President (Putin) has repeatedly spoken of the consequences of unthought-out steps regarding Iran, and by that I mean the decision taken by Washington” to quit the deal, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call. “Now we are seeing those consequences are starting to happen.”

China underlined that it “resolutely opposes” the unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States but called on all parties to uphold the nuclear deal.

“We call on all relevant parties to exercise restraint, strengthen dialogue and avoid escalating tensions,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

Iran reached the deal with world powers after years of negotiations, including secret talks between Iran and U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration in Oman. Western governments had long feared Iran’s atomic program could allow it to build nuclear weapons. Iran has always maintained its program is for peaceful purposes.

That Iran choose to keep its excess uranium and heavy water first, rather than abandon the accord in its entirety, shows it still hopes to secure a deal. Under the 2015 deal, Iran can keep a stockpile of no more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of low-enriched uranium. It once had 10,000 kilograms (22,046 pounds) of higher-enriched uranium.

The U.S. last week ended deals allowing Iran to exchange its enriched uranium for unrefined yellowcake uranium with Russia, and to sell its heavy water, which is used as a coolant in nuclear reactors, to Oman. The U.S. also has ended waivers for nations including Japan that buy Iranian crude oil, a key source of revenue for Iran’s government.

Currently, the accord limits Iran to enriching uranium to 3.67 percent, which can fuel a commercial nuclear power plant. Weapons-grade uranium needs to be enriched to around 90 percent. However, once a country enriches uranium to around 20 percent, scientists say the time needed to reach 90 percent is halved. Iran has previously enriched to 20 percent.