VIENNA/TOKYO • Iran is on course to breach a threshold in its nuclear agreement with world powers within days by accumulating more enriched uranium than permitted, although it has not done so yet, diplomats said, citing the latest data from United Nations nuclear inspectors.
This meant it was unlikely Iran will follow through on its threat to violate one of the nuclear deal's central restrictions yesterday, which could unravel the pact altogether. It also sets up a meeting with other signatories today aimed at saving the accord, which is straining under US pressure.
"They haven't reached the limit... It's more likely to be at the weekend if they do it," one diplomat said.
France, one of the European powers caught in the middle of an escalating confrontation between Washington and Teheran, said it would ask US President Donald Trump to suspend some sanctions on Iran to allow negotiations to defuse the crisis.
A week after Mr Trump called off air strikes on Iran minutes before impact, world leaders are trying to pull the two countries back from the brink, warning that a mistake on either side could lead to war.
"I want to convince Trump that it is in his interest to reopen a negotiation process and go back on certain sanctions to give negotiations a chance," French President Emmanuel Macron said in Japan, where he is due to meet Mr Trump on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in the coming days.
A move by Teheran that clearly breached its 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers would transform the diplomatic landscape and probably force European countries to take sides.
We've made it clear to the Iranians that we have zero tolerance on the nuclear issue. They are close to the threshold, but we will wait for the IAEA to report back to us in the coming days.
A SENIOR EUROPEAN OFFICIAL
Mr Macron said he had two priorities: de-escalating military tension and keeping Iran from violating the accord, which European countries still hope to save even though Mr Trump ignored their advice and quit it last year.
The 2015 deal, which lifted international sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear activities, is aimed at extending the time Iran would need to produce a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to a year from roughly two to three months.
On Wednesday, the UN nuclear watchdog verified that Iran had roughly 200kg of low-enriched uranium, below the deal's 202.8kg limit, three diplomats who follow the agency's work said.
Two of the diplomats said Iran was producing at a rate of around 1kg a day, meaning it could go over the limit soon after the meeting of senior officials from Iran, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China in Vienna today.
Washington pulled out of the nuclear accord last year and has imposed punishing economic sanctions against Teheran.
Iran has threatened to respond by setting aside some of the deal's restrictions, which could cause the deal to collapse, though it has called on European powers to do more to shield it from US sanctions - a move the White House has called "nuclear blackmail".
The European powers are scrambling to protect trade with Iran, but what they can achieve pales in comparison with US sanctions aimed at slashing Iran's vital oil exports to zero.
Diplomats have also stressed that the European signatories are weary of Iranian demands that they sustain a pact that Washington has withdrawn from and said if Teheran followed suit, they would have little choice but to acquiesce in the reimposition of UN sanctions.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is policing the deal's nuclear restrictions, does not generally comment on details of its inspections.
"We've made it clear to the Iranians that we have zero tolerance on the nuclear issue," a senior European official said. "They are close to the threshold, but we will wait for the IAEA to report back to us in the coming days."
Teheran has said Washington would be to blame if it ends up breaching the limit on uranium stockpiles, since the deal allows it to sell excess uranium abroad to reduce its holdings, but US sanctions have prevented this.
It has set a separate deadline of July 7 when it could breach another major threshold, on the level of purity of uranium it has enriched.