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Iran Accelerates Production of Enriched Uranium as Tensions Rise

Golnar Motevalli
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Iran Accelerates Production of Enriched Uranium as Tensions Rise

(Bloomberg) -- Iran has accelerated the rate at which it’s enriching low-grade uranium four-fold, weeks after threatening to gradually scale back its commitments under a 2015 deal meant to prevent it from developing a nuclear bomb.

The semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Behrouz Kamalvandi, an official at Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, as saying that Iran had increased its output of 3.67% enriched uranium as of Monday, and that the United Nations nuclear watchdog had been informed. The number of active centrifuges has not been raised, it added. Crucially, Iran hasn’t increased the level to which it is enriching beyond the agreed limit.

“This issue does not mean that there is an increase in the purity of the material or that there’s an increase in the number of centrifuge machines or that there’s a change in the type of centrifuges,” Kamalvandi said, according the Tasmin.

Tehran has already announced it stopped complying with a 300-kilogram cap on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water imposed by the multilateral accord, and said it would abandon limits on uranium enrichment unless Europe throws it an economic lifeline within 60 days, setting an ultimatum for the survival of the landmark agreement.

Tensions in the Gulf have spiked since the U.S. stopped granting waivers to buyers of Iranian oil early this month, tightening sanctions slapped on the Islamic Republic after President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal a year ago.

With an economic crisis looming, Iran announced on May 8 it would gradually withdraw from the agreement unless the remaining parties find a way to ease its pain. That was followed last week by so far unexplained sabotage attacks against four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, heading toward the Gulf and a drone attack by Iran-backed Yemeni rebels against Saudi pumping stations, which forced the temporary suspension of an east-west pipeline.

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On Wednesday, the U.S. cited growing yet unspecified threats as it ordered the departure of non-emergency staff from Iraq, where Iran provides material and political support to several powerful militias.

By the end of last week, Trump appeared to dial back the tensions, reiterating earlier statements that he’s open to talks with the Iranian government and saying he hopes there isn’t a war. But he’s also signaled that the U.S. will respond to any provocations and asserted that Tehran needs to initiate any talks.

“Iran will call us if and when they are every ready,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday. “In the meantime, their economy continues to collapse -- very sad for the Iranian people.”

In a meeting with clerics in Iran, President Hassan Rouhani said Monday, “I am a supporter of negotiations and diplomacy, but I do not accept to do it in the current circumstances.”

Though all sides have said they do not want war, heightened concerns have rattled oil markets and become a subject of debate at a meeting of OPEC oil exporters taking place in the Saudi city of Jeddah. Iran says that its nuclear program is for civilian energy and medical uses and that it has never sought nuclear weapons.

The U.S. accelerated the dispatch of an aircraft carrier and moved B-52 bombers to the region in recent weeks, citing unspecified threats from Iran and its proxies.

The Trump administration revoked this month two waivers that enabled Iran to send surplus heavy water to Oman and ship out any enriched uranium above the 300 kg limit in exchange for natural or “yellowcake” uranium. Those measures undermined Iran’s ability to dispose of excess materials, forcing it to choose either between stopping enrichment, as the Trump administration wants, or abandoning its commitment to the storage threshold.

(Updates to add latest Rouhani comment on negotiations in 10th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Bill Faries and Zoya Khan.

To contact the reporter on this story: Golnar Motevalli in Tehran at gmotevalli@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lin Noueihed at lnoueihed@bloomberg.net, Larry Liebert

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