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Iran defies nuclear deal with centrifuge use

Cornel Feruță, IAEA's acting director general, briefs reporters at a press conference in Vienna (ARÊTE/Dean Calma)

The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog confirmed on Monday that Iran is preparing to use arrays of more advanced centrifuges, marking yet another violation of Tehran’s faltering 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said its findings were based on the work of inspectors that were “on the ground” investigating Iran’s centrifuge research and development. Centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. The agency’s acting director general, Cornel Feruță, said IAEA has “probably the most robust verification mechanism that we have developed anywhere in the world.”

A senior Iranian official announced earlier that his nation can now enrich uranium “much” closer to weapons-grade material by activating a chain of advanced centrifuges in defiance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

“Regarding the JCPOA, the agency was informed about the latest activities decided by Iran related to centrifuge research and development,” Feruță told reporters at a news conference on Monday in Vienna. “The agency continues to verify and monitor Iran’s nuclear commitments under the JCPOA.”

Feruță, a longtime Romanian diplomat, had just returned on Sunday night from a visit to Iran, where he said there were “very substantial exchanges” and the agency “emphasized the importance of full and timely cooperation by Iran.” But IAEA inspections are confidential and the agency’s acting chief reminded journalists that it does not usually comment on the details.

“It is important to advance our interactions, and therefore I also stressed the need for Iran to respond promptly to agency questions related to the completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations,” said Feruță, who has been presiding over the agency since the death of its director general, Yukiya Amano, in July.

“Time is of the essence,” he said of IAEA’s timeline for Iran to provide answers to its questions within two months. “I was pleased by the tone and the input that we received in those conversations.”

Tehran signed the deal with the United Nations Security Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members plus Germany and the European Union. Its strategy now is to pressure Europe to keep buying its oil to lessen the crippling effects of U.S. sanctions on the Iranian economy.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, had told a news conference in Tehran that time was running out to save the deal. “These steps are reversible if the other side fulfills its promises,” Kamalvandi said in urging European nations to compensate for the United States’ withdrawal.

“Our stockpile is quickly increasing,” he said, though he maintained that Iran does not seek to build a nuclear weapon. “We hope they will come to their senses.”

Iran has previously enriched uranium to 20 percent, which cuts in half the time it takes to get to weapons grade uranium, which must be enriched to around 90 percent. Under the deal, it has been limited to enriching uranium to 3.67 percent, which is enough to fuel a commercial nuclear power plant.

Iran also has been allowed under the deal to keep a stockpile of up to 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, which is just 3 percent of the 10,000 kilograms of higher-enriched uranium it once maintained.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the complex and long-negotiated accord and to reintroduce U.S. sanctions on the Mideast regional power last year ratcheted up pressure on Iran’s struggling economy and ruling regime while further inflaming transatlantic tensions.

The 15-nation Security Council had unanimously endorsed the JCPOA in July 2015 with the support of its five veto-wielding permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

China’s government said the Trump administration was to blame for Iran’s latest actions and called on the remaining powers in the deal to keep it afloat.

“China always holds that the U.S. maximum pressure is the root cause of the current tensions surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular press conference in Beijing.

“The U.S. should renounce its wrong approach of unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure,” she said. “In the meantime, other parties to the JCPOA should be committed to full and effective implementation of the deal. We hope relevant sides will meet each other halfway and work for amelioration. China stands ready to work with others to this end.”

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said this week that Iran would breach the deal’s restrictions on nuclear-related research and development and expand its use of advanced centrifuges, edging the deal closer to collapse.

Iran previously announced plans to resume enriching uranium at higher levels and to no longer export excess uranium and heavy water from its nuclear program if world powers will not accept new terms under the deal

A step away from weapons grade

Flanked by advanced centrifuges, Kamalvandi told reporters that Iran has begun using an array of 20 IR-6 centrifuges and 20 IR-4 centrifuges, which are both faster at enriching uranium than the 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges allowed under the deal. That reduces the one-year timeline that experts have estimated it would take for Iran to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon.

“Under current circumstances, the Islamic Republic of Iran is capable of increasing its enriched uranium stockpile as well as its enrichment levels and that is not just limited to 20 percent,” Kamalvandi said. “We are capable inside the country to increase the enrichment much more beyond that.”

Until now, Iran has kept its enrichment levels below the threshold for a nuclear clear device — and Kamalvandi said again that “the Islamic Republic is not after the bomb.”

The remaining signatories to the deal — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union — have stood by it. In exchange for Iran agreeing to enforceable, IAEA-monitored limits on its nuclear program, the major powers including the United States lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to the U.N. and international organizations in Vienna, described Iran’s actions as still manageable with the parameters of the nuclear deal.

“Yes, it’s another deviation from JCPOA, but new activities will remain verifiable by IAEA and reversible,” he said. “No proliferation threat. Just a strong signal that balance within the JCPOA must be restored.”

Ulyanov also said that “allegations aren’t reliable. Twenty years ago, I heard similar assertions regarding WMD of Saddam Hussein. You know what happened at the end.” The late Iraqi leader presided over a regime that used chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and hinted at more powerful weapons of mass destruction. His bluffs helped lead to the 2003 U.S. invasion that ousted him.

The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA followed by Trump’s decision to re-impose even tougher sanctions on Iran — a supposed bid by the U.S. president to force the Mideast nation to negotiate new terms — badly damaged Iran’s oil exports and caused the value of its currency to drop by more than 50 percent.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been attempting to salvage the deal with a proposal for a $15 billion line of credit to alleviate Iran’s inability to sell oil abroad due to U.S. sanctions. Germany’s foreign ministry spokesman, Rainer Breul, told reporters the German government supports Macron’s efforts.

Iran, however, says it is losing patience with European powers. “If Europeans want to make any decision, they should do it soon,” said Kamalvandi. “We cannot remain in the deal unilaterally.”

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, informed Federica Mogherini, the top E.U. foreign policy official, on Thursday that Tehran would use a dispute mechanism resolution to halt its commitments on research and development. It previously stopped cooperating with two aspects of the deal in July.

“We will sell our oil, one way or the other,” Zarif said in an interview with Russian television channel RT. “The United States will not be able to prevent that.”

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