Iran threatened Wednesday to enrich its uranium stockpile closer to weapons-grade levels in 60 days if world powers fail to negotiate new terms for its 2015 nuclear deal, raising regional tensions as a U.S. aircraft carrier and bombers headed to the Middle East to confront Tehran.
A televised address by President Hassan Rouhani, who once pledged that the landmark deal would draw Iran closer to the West, saw the cleric instead pressure Europe to shield Tehran from the sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the agreement exactly a year earlier.
Rouhani’s threats put the world on notice that it cannot continue to rely on Iran complying with terms of the unraveling deal in the coming weeks.
Rouhani compared the situation to a medical emergency for the Islamic Republic, only 40 years after its founding.
“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.”
Iran on Wednesday stopped its sale of excess uranium and heavy water as a first step, Rouhani said, something required under the deal. The US 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.
In 60 days, if no new deal is in place, Iran will increase its enrichment of uranium beyond the accord-permitted 3.67%, which can fuel a commercial nuclear power plant. Rouhani did not say how far Iran would be willing to enrich, although the head of its nuclear program again reiterated Iran could reach 20% enrichment within four days.
Once a country enriches uranium to around 20%, scientists say the time needed to reach the 90% threshold for weapons-grade uranium is halved. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. However, Iranian state television’s English-language service Press TV, citing sources close to presidency, said the country would withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if Europeans sought to sanction Iran at the UN Security Council.
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.
Iran notified Britain, Russia, China, the European Union, France and Germany of its decision earlier in the day. All were signatories to the nuclear deal and continue to support it. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met Wednesday in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and offered a letter as well.
“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.
There was no immediate response from the US. 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.
In Moscow, Zarif said the measures Iran was taking were permitted within the framework of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“The Islamic Republic has seen it suitable to stop acting on some of its commitments and measures it voluntarily undertook” under the nuclear deal, Zarif told state television.
Emphasizing that “Iran will not withdraw” from the deal, Zarif said “this right has been set for Iran in the JCPOA; we are not operating outside of the JCPOA but are in fact working in its framework.”
He said the measures were in line with Sections 26 and 36 of the deal, which allow Iran to cease some or all of its commitments if the United States or other parties fail to adhere to the agreement, including by reimposing sanctions.
Under the terms of the deal, Iran can keep a stockpile of no more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of low-enriched uranium. That’s compared to the 10,000 kilograms (22,046 pounds) of higher-enriched uranium it once had.
The US last week ended deals allowing Iran to exchange its enriched uranium for unrefined yellowcake uranium with Russia, as well as being able to sell its heavy water to Oman. The US also has ended waivers for nations buying Iranian crude oil, a key source of revenue for Iran’s government.
Currently, the accord limits Iran to enriching uranium to 3.67%, which can fuel a commercial nuclear power plant. Weapons-grade uranium needs to be enriched to around 90%. However, once a country enriches uranium to around 20%, scientists say the time needed to reach 90% is halved. Iran has previously enriched to 20%.
Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal in May last year but the other five signatories have all agreed to try to keep the pact alive on their own. Trump insists the original agreement did not go far enough in curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and wants to renegotiate the JCPOA with stricter terms.
The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog says Iran has continued to comply with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw it limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. But American sanctions have wreaked havoc on Iran’s already-anemic economy, while promised help from European partners in the deal haven’t alleviated the pain.
Already high tensions skyrocketed this week as US National Security Advisor John Bolton said on Sunday that the United States was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East in a “clear and unmistakable” message to Iran.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of planning “imminent” attacks on a hastily organized visit to neighboring Iraq on Tuesday.
Washington has also deployed an aircraft carrier strike group and several massive, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the Middle East as national security adviser John Bolton warned Washington would respond with “unrelenting force” to any attack by Tehran.
Trump campaigned on a promise to tear up the deal struck by his predecessor, Barack Obama. While Trump has sought to dismantle much of Obama’s policies, he particularly criticized the Iran nuclear deal for failing to address Tehran’s ballistic missile program and what he described as its malign influence across the rest of the Mideast.