The United Nation’s nuclear watchdog confirmed Monday that Iran has enriched uranium at a level higher than the limit set in a 2015 international pact.
Inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on July 8, “verified that Iran is enriching uranium above 3.67 percent U-235,” the IAEA said in a statement, hours after Tehran said it had exceeded the agreed cap and reached 4.5% enrichment in response to the United States withdrawing from the deal.
The Iranian violations of the 2015 agreement are to be the subject of an extraordinary meeting of the governors of the IAEA at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna on Wednesday.
Iran also said it would consider going to 20% or higher, rapidly bringing its program closer to weapons-grade levels.
Iranian nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi confirmed in a state television interview that Iran had surpassed the 3.67% enrichment cap set by the faltering deal.
“This morning Iran passed the 4.5% level in uranium enrichment,” Kamalvandi said, according to the semi-official ISNA News Agency. “This level of purity completely satisfies the power plant fuel requirements of the country.”
He said the next and third stage in abandoning the agreement could be increasing uranium enrichment to 20% or more. That would worry nuclear nonproliferation experts, as 20% is a short technical step away from reaching weapons-grade levels of 90%.
Behrouz also suggested Iran could use new or more centrifuges, which are also limited by the deal.
He said Iran surpassed the 3.67% cap on Sunday, after waiting a year for the other parties in the agreement to honor their commitments in the wake of the American pullout from the deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Iran “was trying right now to cross the line… They are trying to signal through small steps that they will move towards a bomb… It will take them a few years if they want that, and we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen.”
Speaking during a live Q&A session on Facebook, the prime minister said “The big question is not what our policy is, because nothing has changed there,” and called on European leaders to enact sanctions on Tehran.
He also asserted that it was thanks to his actions on the world stage that Iran did not have “100 nuclear bombs by now.”
Later Monday, he called for the international community to ratchet up pressure on Iran.
“They attack tankers, they down American drones, they’re firing missiles at their neighbors. It’s important to respond to these actions not by reducing the pressure, but by increasing the pressure,” he told Pastor John Hagee by video link at the Christians United For Israel Conference.
The future of the pact has been in doubt since US President Donald Trump unilaterally exited a year ago, and reimposed the harsh sanctions that the deal had lifted.
While Iran’s recent measures to increase enrichment and break its low-enriched uranium stockpile limit could be easily reversed, Europe has struggled to respond, even after getting a 60-day warning that the increase was coming.
Under the nuclear deal, the cap for enrichment was set at 3.67%, a percentage closely monitored by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. The IAEA said it was waiting for a report from its inspectors before commenting on Iran’s move.
The decision to ramp up uranium enrichment purity came less than a week after Iran acknowledged breaking the deal’s 300-kilogram (661-pound) limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile. Experts warn higher enrichment and a growing stockpile could begin to narrow the one-year window Iran would need to have enough material for an atomic bomb, something Iran denies it wants but the deal prevented.
On Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said his country remained open to diplomacy to save the agreement, though it had “no hope” that the international community could salvage the deal.