Iran threatens to enrich uranium to 20 per cent purity as tensions rise

The inside of a reactor at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran in 2010.
The inside of a reactor at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran in 2010.PHOTO: AFP

DUBAI (BLOOMBERG) - Iran said it had already begun enriching uranium beyond the cap set in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal and threatened to boost enrichment to 20 per cent purity, escalating tensions with European partners who are struggling to salvage the accord in the face of tightening US sanctions.

Iran announced on Sunday (July 7) that it would abandon the 3.67 per cent limit for uranium enrichment as it scales back its commitments in response to US penalties reimposed after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement a year ago. It said more steps would be taken to scale back compliance every 60 days unless European parties find ways to ensure it can continue to trade its oil.

"Earlier today, the level of enrichment reached 4.5 per cent," Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told the state-run Iranian Students News Agency. In a separate report, Kamalvandi said Teheran may consider boosting enrichment to as much as 20 per cent purity or using more advanced centrifuges at a later stage. It's "among the options considered," he said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. Centrifuges are fast-spinning machines used to enrich uranium.

Uranium must be enriched to 90 per cent to build weapons, though lower levels would be considered significant. The International Atomic Energy Agency said its inspectors will report to headquarters as soon as they verify the development.

The latest slew of announcements from Teheran raises pressure on European nations who've urged it to stick with a multi-party deal that the US has shunned but have struggled to come up with a vehicle that would allow the Iranians to keep selling their oil.

Iran is producing oil at the slowest clip since 1986, making US sanctions as effective as the devastating Iraq-Iran war that ended more than 30 years ago. The measures have hit the currency, fueled inflation and set back growth in a country where government revenues are heavily dependent on oil sales.

The "maximum pressure" policy, which US officials say is designed to push the Iranians back to the negotiating table, has instead weakened the hand of moderate President Hassan Rouhani and prompted Iranian officials to dig in.

 
 
 
 

The latest measures are likely to stoke further friction with the US, which has accused the Islamic Republic of being behind a spate of attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz shipping chokepoint. Iran denies any wrongdoing.

Tensions with the UK have also spiked in recent days after it seized a supertanker off the coast of Gibraltar that it said was carrying Iranian oil to Syria in violation of European and US sanctions against that war-torn country Mediterranean country. Iran said the tanker was in international waters, not headed to Syria and likened the UK's action to "piracy."

The diplomatic row exacerbated frictions just as the three European nations remaining in the nuclear deal, which include the UK, seek to prevent Iran from walking away.

In the year since the US pulled out of the deal, France, Germany and the UK have managed to deliver a financial channel known as Instex that aims to protect some trade with Iran - initially only food and medicine - from US penalties. But Iran is seeking a trade vehicle that can also be used to buy oil.

European nations have urged Iran to reverse the measures it has taken but have stopped short of calling for renewed sanctions.

"We are extremely concerned" by announcements made by Iran regarding the start of the uranium enrichment above the agreed limit of 3.67 per cent, European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said on Monday.

"We have called on Iran not to take further measures that undermine the nuclear deal and we now strongly urge Iran to stop and reverse all activities that are inconsistent with the commitments made under the JCPOA." Iran has held open the door to negotiations with the Europeans but has refused to resume talks with the US unless it eases sanctions first. The Trump administration has said it is keeping up the pressure because it wants to negotiate a tougher deal that would also restrict Iran's missile program and support for proxy militias around the Middle East.

"If the countries remaining in the agreement, in particular, the Europeans, don't honour their commitments and just talk, we will take the next step with determination," Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said in a press conference aired live on state television. "We will take the next step in 60 days - we are still reviewing."