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Iran Says It’s No Longer Abiding by Uranium Enrichment Limit

Arsalan Shahla

(Bloomberg) -- Iran said it is no longer abiding by limits imposed on its uranium enrichment and centrifuge research by the 2015 nuclear accord, throwing down a new challenge to European leaders struggling to reduce diplomatic tensions between Tehran and Washington.

The Islamic Republic will forge ahead with plans to develop its advanced centrifuges and has started injecting them with gas, Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said on Saturday at a news conference. That’s a breach of a time-frame agreed within the deal that aimed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Iran has been scaling back its compliance to the terms of the beleaguered deal since May as it pushes back against the “maximum pressure” offensive of U.S. President Donald Trump, who unilaterally left the accord last year. The U.S. and the Iranians have been unable to agree to terms that would let them discuss their standoff, even as Trump offered to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and ease restrictions so Tehran can use some of its oil wealth to access credit.

UN Watchdog

Iran will not take any action against international nuclear inspections or the work of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, Kamalvandi said. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of Iran’s atomic organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, will meet with the acting director general of the IAEA, Cornel Feruta, on Sunday, he said.

“Iran’s breaches are still easy to reverse,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said in an email. “But the more they step away from their commitments, the harder it will become to restore status quo ante.”

And the latest Iranian move is likely to trigger claims in Washington that the Islamic Republic is intent on rebuilding an atomic program capable of producing nuclear weapons.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted after the Iranian announcement that the U.S. was “eager” to get full a report from the IAEA on whether it may be concealing nuclear material or activities.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in Paris he was “not surprised that Iran has announced that it’s going to violate” the nuclear deal. Esper made his comments at a press conference with his French counterpart Florence Parly shortly after Iran’s announcement.

Kamalvandi said that while its latest actions may amount to Iran ceasing compliance to technical aspects of the accord, they were “reversible within a day” and the agreement itself remained intact.

French Efforts

Parly, whose government is leading a European attempt at salvaging the deal with a plan that requires the U.S. to ease sanctions on Iranian oil exports, said diplomatic efforts will continue in order to “get Iran to come back into compliance.”

A French proposal orchestrated by President Emmanuel Macron hopes to deliver the economic benefits demanded by Iran, and in turn salvage the deal, which includes a $15 billion credit line against which Tehran can sell crude.

But the plan would require Trump, who is trying to wipe out Iran’s oil revenue, to approve sanctions waivers -- an idea his advisers have so far dismissed. Rather than easing up, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said on Wednesday that Washington planned to intensify its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran until it changed its behavior.

Iran had warned for weeks that it would embark upon the third and most significant stage of its plan to gradually scale back its commitments to the nuclear accord if the European Union, a partner in the multilateral agreement, couldn’t work out a mechanism by Sept. 6 that would allow Iran to export oil.

‘Over-Dramatized’

Russia, a signatory of the original deal along with the U.S., France, the U.K., China and Germany, played down concerns over Iran’s move. “The decision of Iran to use more advanced centrifuges shouldn’t be over-dramatized,” the Russian ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, said on Twitter.

While conceding that it marks “another deviation” from the Iran nuclear deal, the Russian diplomat said it isn’t a proliferation threat but “a strong signal” that the agreement must be revived.

While Iran will “set aside” restrictions on uranium enrichment, it has no need as yet to enrich uranium beyond 20%, a level limited by the nuclear accord and required for research reactors, Kamalvandi said. Weapons-grade uranium needs to have an enrichment level of 90% or higher.

Iran’s stockpiles of low-enriched uranium are likely to see a “high jump” in coming weeks as a result of the measures announced on Saturday, Kamalvandi said. Iran breached a 300-kilogram limit on stockpiles of the material in early July.

The 2015 nuclear accord was designed to ensure that even if Iran broke out of the deal, it would need at least a year to restore the capacity and material needed for a weapon. Iran, which says its nuclear work is aimed solely at addressing its energy and medical needs, forfeited some 97% of its enriched uranium and mothballed three-quarters of the industrial capacity needed to refine the heavy metal.

(Updates with U.S. national security adviser tweet in seventh paragraph.)

--With assistance from Gregory Viscusi, Glen Carey and Maria Jose Valero.

To contact the reporter on this story: Arsalan Shahla in Tehran at ashahla@bloomberg.net

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

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