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Iran’s Rouhani calls bill to boost uranium enrichment ‘harmful’ to diplomacy

Iranian president says legislation in wake of killing of nuclear scientist is damaging to efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal and ease US sanctions

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaking in a pre-recorded message played during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at UN headquarters in New York, September 22, 2020. (UNTV via AP)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaking in a pre-recorded message played during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at UN headquarters in New York, September 22, 2020. (UNTV via AP)

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday rejected a bill approved by parliament that would have suspended UN inspections and boosted uranium enrichment, saying it was “harmful” to diplomatic efforts aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear deal and easing US sanctions.

The comments came as US President-elect Joe Biden said the United States would rejoin the agreement if Tehran agreed to strictly comply by the terms.

According to a New York Times report published overnight Tuesday, Biden and his team are working on the premise that if the deal is restored on both sides there will need to be new negotiations on the length of time for restrictions on the production of the fissile material needed to produce a bomb, originally set at 15 years under the 2015 the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

The US imposed crippling sanctions on Iran after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement in 2018. In response, Iran began publicly exceeding limits set by the agreement while saying it would quickly return to compliance if the United States did the same.

In this April 9, 2018 file photo, released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani listens to explanations on new nuclear achievements at a ceremony to mark “National Nuclear Day,” in Tehran, Iran. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)

The tug-of-war over the Iranian bill, which gained momentum after the killing of a prominent nuclear scientist last month, allegedly by Israel, reflects the rivalry between Rouhani and hardline lawmakers who dominate parliament and favor a more confrontational approach to the West.

The bill would have suspended UN inspections and required the government to resume enriching uranium to 20 percent if European nations fail to provide relief from crippling US sanctions on the country’s oil and banking sectors. That level falls short of the threshold needed for nuclear weapons but is higher than that required for civilian purposes.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Rouhani said his administration “does not agree with that and considers it harmful for the trend of diplomatic activities.” He implied the lawmakers were positioning themselves ahead of Iran’s elections planned for June.

He added that “today, we are more powerful in the nuclear field than at any other time.”

The bill is expected to have little if any impact, as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on all major policies, including those related to the nuclear program. Rather, it appeared to be a show of defiance after Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a key figure in Iran’s nuclear program, was killed in an attack Iranian officials have blamed on Israel.

Members of Iranian forces pray around the coffin of slain nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during the burial ceremony at Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in northern Tehran, on November 30, 2020. (HAMED MALEKPOUR / TASNIM NEWS / AFP)

Some analysts have argued the killing of Fakhrizadeh was aimed at making it more difficult for Biden to reenter the nuclear deal with Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had warned about the threat posed by Fakhrizadeh as early as 2018 and just days ago cautioned against Biden’s plans to reenter the nuclear accord.

Fakhrizadeh headed a program that Israel and the West have alleged was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that the “structured program” ended in 2003, while Israel says Iran is still aiming to develop nuclear weapons, pointing to its work on ballistic missiles and other technologies.

In this file photo taken on February 25, 2009, Iranian technicians walk outside the building housing the reactor of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, in the Iranian port town of Bushehr, 1,200 kilometers south of Tehran. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP Files/AFP)

Iran insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, though a trove of Iranian documents stolen from Tehran by the Mossad, which where revealed by Netanyahu in 2018, showed plans by Iran to attach a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile.

Iran has suffered several devastating attacks this year, including the killing of top general Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike in January, and a mysterious explosion and fire that crippled an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, which is widely believed to have been an act of sabotage.

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