WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump warned Iran on Sunday to “be careful,” shortly after the Islamic Republic said it would breach a uranium enrichment cap set by the 2015 nuclear deal.
“Iran better be careful, because you enrich for one reason, and I won’t tell you what that reason is. But it’s no good. They better be careful,” Trump told reporters in Morristown, New Jersey.
Earlier Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Tehran will face further sanctions in response to its expected violation of the agreement.
“Iran’s latest expansion of its nuclear program will lead to further isolation and sanctions,” the top US diplomat said on Twitter.
Iran said Sunday it was hours away from breaching the cap set by an endangered nuclear deal reached with international powers but from which the United States withdrew last year.
The Islamic Republic also threatened to abandon more of its commitments unless a solution is found with parties to the landmark 2015 agreement.
The deal saw Iran commit not to acquire an atomic bomb, to accept drastic limits on its nuclear program and to submit to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections in exchange for a partial lifting of crippling international sanctions.
But US President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal on May 8, 2018 — and subsequent sanctions — have deprived Iran of the economic benefits it expected and plunged it into recession.
“Nations should restore the long-standing standard of no enrichment for Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s regime, armed with nuclear weapons, would pose an even greater danger to the world,” Pompeo said.
Even after the US pullout, experts said Iran had been complying with the agreement.
But Tehran, which has sought to pressure the remaining parties to save the deal, on May 8 announced it would no longer respect the limits set on its enriched uranium and heavy water stockpiles.
It also threatened to go further and abandon more nuclear commitments unless the remaining partners — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — help it to circumvent sanctions, especially to sell its oil.
But European powers condemned Iran’s decision Sunday, with Britain warning Iran to “immediately stop and reverse all activities” violating the deal and Germany saying it is “extremely concerned.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime critic of the accord, urged world powers to impose so-called snapback sanctions on Tehran.
The European Union said parties to the deal are discussing a possible emergency meeting after Iran’s announcement, with EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic saying the bloc is “extremely concerned” about the move.
At a news conference Sunday morning, Iranian officials said the new level of uranium enrichment would be reached later in the day, but did not provide the percentage they planned to hit. 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 U.N.’s nuclear watchdog.
“Within hours, the technical tasks will be done and enrichment above 3.67% will begin,” Iran nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said. “We predict that the IAEA measurements early tomorrow morning will show that we have gone beyond 3.67%.”
The IAEA said it was aware of Iran’s comments and “inspectors in Iran will report to our headquarters as soon as they verify the announced development.”
Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made remarks in a video Saturday about Iran’s need for 5% enrichment. Bushehr, Iran’s only nuclear power plant, is now running on imported fuel from Russia that’s enriched to around 5%.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini outlining the steps it had taken, said Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister. Discussions with European powers are continuing and ministerial-level talks are planned later this month, he said.
“We will give another 60-day period, and then we will resume the reduction of our commitments,” Araghchi said, without elaborating.
On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron told his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in a phone call that he is trying to find a way by July 15 to resume the dialogue between Iran and Western partners. It wasn’t clear if July 15 carried any importance. The U.S. has called for a special IAEA meeting for Wednesday to discuss Iran.
Kamalvandi stressed that Iran will continue to use only slower, first-generation IR-1 centrifuges to increase enrichment, as well as keep the number of centrifuges in use under the 5,060-limit set by the nuclear deal. Iran has the technical ability to build and operate advanced centrifuges that work faster but is barred from doing so under the deal.
“For the enrichment we are using the same machines with some more pressure and some special technical work,” he said. “So we don’t have an increase in the number of centrifuges for this purpose.”
But Kamalvandi stressed that Iran is able to continue enrichment “at any speed, any amount and any level.”
Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%.
The decision to ramp up uranium enrichment 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 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.
The steps taken so far by Iran show it is more interested in applying political pressure than moving toward a nuclear weapon, said Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. He said Iran would need at least 1,050 kilograms (2,315 pounds) of low-enriched uranium to make the core of a single nuclear bomb, then would have to enrich it to 90%.
“Iran is not racing toward the bomb as some allege but these are calibrated moves,” Kimball told The Associated Press. However, “if Iran and the United States remain on the current course, the agreement is indeed in jeopardy.”