DUBAI (REUTERS, AP) - Iran announced on Sunday (Jan 5) that it would abandon limitations on enriching uranium, taking a further step back from commitments to a 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers, but would continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog.
Iran had been expected to announce its latest stance on the deal this past weekend. But its announcement coincided with a major escalation of hostilities with Washington following the United States killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike last Friday in Baghdad.
State television said Iran would not respect any limits set down in the pact on the country's nuclear work: be it the limit on its number of uranium enrichment centrifuges to its enrichment capacity, the level to which uranium could be enriched, the amount of stockpiled enriched uranium, or Iran's nuclear research and development activities.
"Iran will continue its nuclear enrichment with no restrictions... and based on its technical needs," a government statement cited by television said.
Iran has steadily overstepped the deal's limits on its nuclear activities in response to the US' withdrawal from the accord in 2018 and Washington's re-imposition of sanctions that have crippled Iran's oil trade.
Under the nuclear deal, Teheran agreed to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of most international sanctions.
Relations between Teheran and Washington sharply deteriorated after US President Donald Trump's withdrawal of the US from the deal. Iran has criticised European powers for failing to salvage the pact by shielding its economy from US sanctions.
Sunday's statement said Teheran can quickly reverse its steps if US sanctions are removed.
"This step is within JCPOA (deal) & all 5 steps are reversible upon EFFECTIVE implementation of reciprocal obligations," tweeted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Iran has threatened revenge for Major-General Soleimani's killing in Iraq last week.
Mr Mark Fitzpatrick, associate fellow and nuclear non-proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Iran's latest step left room for diplomacy.
"They are not saying how far they will push the enrichment or the number of centrifuges they'll operate," he told Reuters. "I think they have reserved a lot of room for negotiation and for taking further steps if they need to."
Washington says the "maximum pressure" campaign it started after withdrawing from the nuclear agreement will force Iran to negotiate a more sweeping deal, covering its ballistic missile programme and its role in Middle Eastern conflicts. Iran says it will not negotiate a new deal.
Teheran has rejected Western assertions that it has sought to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran has already breached many of the deal's restrictions on its nuclear activities, including on the purity to which it enriches uranium, its stock of enriched uranium, which models of centrifuge it enriches uranium with and where it enriches uranium.
It has, however, not gone far over the purity allowed - the deal sets a limit of 3.67 per cent and Iran has stayed at around 4.5 per cent in recent months, well below the 20 per cent it reached before the deal and the roughly 90 per cent that is weapons-grade.
The deal as a whole was designed to increase the time Iran would need to obtain enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb if it wanted one - the main obstacle to producing a nuclear weapon - from around two or three months.