UN nuclear agency confirms Iran enriching uranium to 4.5%, exceeding deal cap

UN nuclear agency confirms Iran enriching uranium to 4.5%, exceeding deal cap

At emergency IAEA meeting, US urges world powers to reject ‘nuclear extortion’ from Tehran, which is seeking economic relief to offset American sanctions

The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flutters in front of the IAEA building in Vienna on July 10, 2019. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)
The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flutters in front of the IAEA building in Vienna on July 10, 2019. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Iran has started enriching uranium to 4.5 percent purity, exceeding the 3.67% it was allowed to stockpile under limitations set in the 2015 nuclear deal, the UN’s nuclear watchdog told member states in a closed-door meeting on Wednesday.

Officials from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency said inspectors had verified Tehran’s claims that it surpassed the enrichment cap.

The US requested the special IAEA board meeting after Iran breached the pact’s limit. The Islamic Republic has been seeking to ramp up pressure on the deal’s remaining signatories to provide economic relief to offset renewed American sanctions.

Jackie Wolcott, the US ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, admonished world powers seeking to preserve the nuclear deal, urging them not to give in to “nuclear extortion” from Tehran.

Wolcott told Iran and others in the room that Washington was open to “negotiation without preconditions” on a new nuclear deal, and that “the only path to sanctions relief is through such negotiations, not nuclear extortion.”

“We are committed to denying Iran the benefits it seeks from these most recent provocations,” she said. “It is imperative that this misbehavior not be rewarded, for if it is, Iran’s demands and provocations will only escalate.”

US Ambassador Jackie Wolcott waits for the start of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, board of governors meeting at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday, July 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

US President Donald Trump underscored the comments later, tweeting that the nuclear deal was “terrible” and threatening that “sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!” Trump has long rejected the deal, saying it was too generous to Tehran and did not address its involvement in regional conflicts.

Russian delegate Mikhail Ulyanov fired back at the meeting, saying the US could not reject the deal while at the same time calling for Iran’s full implementation of it.

“Although for some reason they only refer to Tehran, in fact the United States, who are refusing to fulfill its own obligations under the nuclear deal, lost any right to demand this from others,” he said.

Iran’s representative, Kazem Gharib Abadi, stressed that his country’s nuclear program was for “peaceful purposes” and said it was prepared to resume full implementation of the nuclear deal, “commensurate with the implementation of the commitments by all participants.”

At the same time, he slammed the US decision to withdrawal from the deal and reinstate sanctions, saying it was “neither legitimate nor legal” and should not be accepted by the international community.

In this February 2007 file photo, an Iranian technician walks through the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (photo credit: AP/Vahid Salemi)

“Due to costly and predictable consequences of sanctions, they should be seen as weapons of warfare and means of aggression,” he said. “Economic sanctions are, in fact, collective punishment of the ordinary people, contrary to the objectives and purposes of human rights, and should be considered as crimes against humanity.”

Since Trump withdrew from the nuclear accord, the restoration of heavy sanctions on Iran, including its oil industry, has exacerbated an economic crisis that has sent the currency plummeting.

Tension between Iran and the US have been on the rise. The US has sent thousands of troops, an aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets to the Middle East, and fears are growing of a wider conflict after mysterious oil tanker attacks near the Strait of Hormuz blamed on Iran, attacks by Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen on Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s downing of a US military drone.

So far, the remaining parties to the nuclear deal — Russia, China, Germany, France, Britain and the European Union — have been unable to meet Tehran’s demands for enough economic assistance to offset the American sanctions.

Iran maintains it is justified in breaching the limitations because the US already broke the deal with its unilateral withdrawal last year, and Ulyanov said its recent steps “are not a source of enthusiasm, but we treat them with understanding.”

In its statement to the IAEA board, the European Union urged Iran to return to compliance but also added it “deeply regrets the US withdrawal and calls on all countries to refrain from taking any actions that impede the implementation of the JCPOA commitments.”

On the European side, French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a lead role in trying to save the deal, speaking Saturday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and separately Monday with Trump.

Iran’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Kazem Gharib Abadi gives a press conference after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting in Vienna on July 10, 2019. (Alex Halada / AFP)

On Wednesday, his top diplomatic adviser, Emmanuel Bonne, met in Tehran with Iran’s senior security official, Ali Shamkhani, a powerful figure in the Iranian hierarchy.

Despite the overture, however, Shamkhani said Iran will not reverse its decision to increase uranium enrichment beyond the limits set by the accord until it achieves its “full rights” under the deal.

Iran’s official IRNA news agency reported that Shamkhani told Bonne the decision to increase enrichment is an “unchangeable strategy” and criticized European countries for their “lack of will” in providing relief from US sanctions.

Rouhani, however, after meeting with Bonne said “Iran has fully left the path open for diplomacy and negotiation.”

Rouhani told Bonne Iran seeks “full implementation” of commitments from all parties to the agreement, and “if signatories to the deal implement their commitments, Iran also will take new steps,” according to Rouhani’s website.

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