Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear arms Wednesday, hours after Iran declared it would step up enrichment activity as the 2015 nuclear deal appeared close to crumbling.
Netanyahu has been one of the leading critics of the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers. The US pulled out of the deal in May 2018, and Iran marked the one-year anniversary of that move by announcing it was pulling out of some commitments under the deal and could soon begin ramping up its enrichment activity again.
“We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Netanyahu said at an official ceremony to mark the annual Memorial Day held at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.
The comment was the first from an Israeli official on the matter. Netanyahu has cheered US President Doanld Trump’s decision to pull out of the landmark deal and urged other signatories to do the same.
Earlier Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said during a televised speech from Tehran that the Islamic Republic would keep its excess enriched uranium and heavy water, and set a 60-day deadline for new terms for its nuclear deal.
He threatened that higher-level uranium enrichment would resume if new nuclear deal terms were not reached by the deadline.
Rouhani said Iran wanted to negotiate new terms with remaining partners in the deal, but acknowledged that the situation was dire.
“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.
Iran sent letters Wednesday on its decision to the leaders of Britain, China, the European Union, France and Germany. All were signatories to the nuclear deal and continue to support it. A letter was also to go to Russia.
Also reacting to the announcement, China called on all parties to uphold the Iranian nuclear pact.
“Maintaining and implementing the comprehensive agreement is the shared responsibility of all parties,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang at a regular press briefing.
“We call on all relevant parties to exercise restraint, strengthen dialogue, and avoid escalating tensions,” he said, adding that China “resolutely opposes” unilateral US sanctions against Iran.
There was no immediate response from the US.
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, reimposing harsh sanctions to force Iran back to the negotiating table.
Adding to the tensions, Washington announced it was deploying an aircraft carrier strike group with several nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the Middle East, and national security adviser John Bolton warned Washington would respond with “unrelenting force” to any attack by Tehran.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a hastily organized visit to neighboring Iraq on Tuesday, where he accused Iran of planning “imminent” attacks.
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.
Under 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 it 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%.