MANAMA, Bahrain (WASHINGTON POST) - The UN nuclear watchdog confirmed on Monday (July 1) that Teheran has broken a stockpile limit for low-enriched uranium allowed under a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, a move that could add to friction with the United States.
Iran's total stockpile of low-enriched uranium on Monday exceeded the 300-kg limit allowed under the deal, International Atomic Energy Agency spokesman Fredrik Dahl said.
His statement followed comments by Iranian officials saying they had breached the limit because Europe has not done enough to mitigate biting US sanctions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the move was "reversible" but warned that Iran can continue to reduce its commitment to the agreement if Europe does not take necessary action to uphold the other side of the deal, Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Iran had repeatedly threatened to cross the limit laid out in the deal for its stockpile of low-enriched uranium unless it received some relief from sanctions, arguing that it has been constrained by the accord but unable to reap the benefits of it since the United States pulled out last year.
An Iranian breach of the stockpile limit does not put it significantly closer to building a nuclear weapon, but it strikes another blow to the tattered deal. The stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.67 per cent is suitable for use as fuel in nuclear power plants but far short of the weapons-grade level of more than 90 per cent needed for fissile material in a nuclear bomb.
However, the move adds to instability in the region at a time when tension between the United States and Iran is already high.
President Donald Trump said late last month that he came close to authorising strikes against Iran after it shot down an American surveillance drone over the Straits of Hormuz. The incident followed attacks on petrochemical tankers in the Gulf of Oman that the United States blamed on Iran, a charge it denies.
When he withdrew the US from the agreement, struck under the Obama administration, Mr Trump reimposed sanctions and added new ones, making it difficult for European companies to continue trading with Iran for fear of falling foul of US law.
The remaining signatories to the deal, originally signed by six world powers and Iran, have been scrambling to keep the agreement alive since Mr Trump pulled out.
Germany, Britain and France have launched a complex barter system that would continue to allow European businesses to trade with Iran, but it is limited in scope, focusing on essential goods such as medicine and humanitarian items.
The European Union announced that the barter system was active after a meeting with senior Iranian officials in Vienna on Friday, as it rushed to complete a last-ditch attempt to keep Iran in the deal.
However, a transaction has yet to be completed through the barter system, the key test as to whether it is functional.
European diplomats had been bracing for the Iranian announcement, which they said that they expected after the Vienna meeting ended without Iran definitively ruling out breaching the stockpile limit.
But Europeans view the breach as easily reversible and as a negotiating tactic to win additional concessions from the other parties to the nuclear deal, two European diplomats familiar with the discussions said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations.
A more serious departure from the deal could come on July 7, when Iranian officials have warned they would increase work to enrich uranium closer to weapons grade and take other measures that violate the agreement.
The Europeans are trying to hold the deal together and don't want to be rushed into taking steps against Iran. But they say they may have no choice but to trigger clauses that could eventually lead to the reimposition of sanctions - and a full breakdown of the agreement.
Even the action Iran has already taken will make it more politically difficult for Europeans to push through the last steps to get trade flowing within a new mechanism, called Instex, the diplomats said.
They have been working to get some transactions through the barter-facilitating system to show Teheran their goodwill. But so far they have been outmatched by the logistics.
If Iran moves toward a full breach of the deal on July 7, then transactions within Instex will likely become politically impossible, one of the diplomats said.
Iranian officials have complained that the measures fall short of the benefits laid out in the nuclear deal, including the ability to sell oil.
In announcing the breach, Mr Zarif cited article 36 of the accord which lays out the process if any of the parties to the agreement, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, feel that it is not being upheld.
"Iran has stated that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part," the article says.
Mr Zarif said that two days after the United States withdrew from the accord, the Europeans accepted 11 commitments to keep it alive.
Those included the sale of Iranian oil and the return of frozen Iranian assets and oil-sale income, he said.
However, the barter system launched by Europe "does not satisfy any of the commitments," Mr Zarif said. Without fulfilling other commitments, the trading system is "meaningless," he added.
US officials have indicated that they want Iran to stick within the limits of the deal, even though the United States withdrew from it. The US special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, said last week that any country buying Iranian oil would be subject to sanctions.
He said sanctions against Iran would continue until it became a "normal state." But European countries see the Iran nuclear deal as essential to maintaining security in an already volatile region.
Seven European countries released a statement on Friday supporting the deal and calling it a "major contribution to stability."