Uranium-Stockpile Breach Ratchets Up Tensions With Iran

A part of Arak heavy water nuclear facilities is seen on Jan. 15, 2011, near the central city of Arak, 150 miles southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. Iran has broken the uranium stockpile limit set by Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in the next 10 days, the spokesman for the country’s atomic agency said Monday while also warning that Iran has the need for uranium enriched up to 20%, just a step away from weapons-grade levels. (AP Photo/Fars News Agency, Mehdi Marizad, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Further splintering European hopes to salvage the deal that President Donald Trump abandoned last year, Iran’s stockpiles of low-enriched uranium now exceed the cap that the 2015 nuclear accord had set.

The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency confirmed the tally this morning following an announcement by Tehran that it had surpassed the 300 kilogram limit on uranium enriched to a maximum of 3.67%.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said breaking the terms of the accord — originally signed off on by Iran with the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain — was a transparent next step.

“[The] actions of the Europeans have not been enough so the Islamic Republic will move ahead with its plans as it has previously announced,” Zarif said speaking to journalists in Tehran. “We are in the process of doing our first phase of actions both on increasing our stockpile of enriched uranium as well as our heavy water reserves.”

President Donald Trump has yet to comment on the news, which comes just a week after he threatened and then called off a military strike on Iran following the downing of a U.S. military surveillance drone and attacks on oil tankers near the Persian Gulf. The U.S. has accused Tehran of orchestrating both events.

Following tweets this morning by the president about his recent trip to North Korea and other topics, the White House press office issued a statement in which it said it had been a mistake by the Obama administration to allow uranium enrichment at any level. 

“There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms,” the White House said. “We must restore the longstanding nonproliferation standard of no enrichment for Iran. The United States and its allies will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.”

Sara Bazoobandi, a fellow with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, noted in an interview that warnings of Iran’s intent came from as high as the supreme leader in recent months.

“Iran is now portraying the situation and trying to show to Europe … that Iran is being pushed, by the United States, into a corner in which they have nothing else to lose,” Bazoobandi said.

Iran has repeatedly communicated that it plans to abandon negotiations with the Trump administration if sanctions on Iranian oil imports to the European Union are not lifted.

Zarif did not reveal, nor did the U.N., how much uranium Iran holds today. In Vienna last week, Iranian officials said the country was 2.8 kilograms away from the 2015 limit.

“We don’t have sufficient information to know what actually is the level that Iran is aiming for at the moment — it might be much higher than what they are claiming it to be, it might be much lower,” Bazoobandi said.

Tehran previously revealed it had quadrupled low-enriched uranium production at under 3.67% — build up capable of powering a nuclear reactor to generate electricity but far from weapons-grade levels.

Pushing beyond the 2015 accord nuclear development bounds does not bring Iran dramatically closer to an atomic bomb. Tehran has asserted time and again the nuclear program is peaceful. 

But Mark Hibbs, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Nuclear Policy Program, said Monday’s development brings the U.S. and Iran closer to mutual hostility that could lead to a full-blown conflict.

“By incrementally adding to its inventory of enriched uranium in crossing the red lines set by the agreement, it signals that eventually it will get to the point when it will have sufficient uranium fuel that it could use for making a bomb on short order, in effect contributing to an eventual state of war between Iran and the U.S.,” Hibbs said in an interview.

Zarif made clear that unless Europe steps up to reinforce the terms of the 2015 agreement in the absence of the U.S. involvement, Iran will continue on its current path.

“The next step is about the 3.67% limitation, which we will implement too,” he said.

Russian officials agreed Iran had provided clear indicators prior to exceeding the 300-kilogram cap.

“It didn’t come as a surprise, Iran long has warned about it,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.

Ryabkov cautioned the international community not to allow the announcement to become “overdramatized” and faulted the U.S. for applying tough pressure on Tehran’s crippled economy.  

“Iran has faced an unprecedented and unthinkable U.S. sanction pressure, effectively meaning a total oil embargo, an attempt to strangle a sovereign state,” Ryabkov said.

Bazoobandi said the response from Moscow could be a signal that increased uranium enrichment is meant to pressure Europeans in ongoing negotiations over a “special purpose vehicle” that would open trade avenues with Iran.

The vehicle, also known as Instex, is a new channel opened by France, Germany and Britain to circumvent U.S. sanctions by matching Iranian oil and gas exports with EU goods.

But with mostly humanitarian products reaching Iran under Instex, rather than raw materials or industrial equipment, the trade vehicle has gained little traction in negotiations.

“Let’s face it, Instex doesn’t mean anything if Iran cannot sell oil to the European countries,” Bazoobandi said.

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