Iran ratchets up pressure ahead of weekend nuclear deadline

Iranian officials ratcheted up pressure Wednesday ahead of a weekend nuclear deadline for European nations to come up with a solution for Iran to sell its oil abroad in the aftermath of escalated U.S. sanctions.

President Hassan Rouhani reiterated a threat that Tehran would take additional steps away from the 2015 nuclear accord on Friday and accelerate nuclear activities if Europe fails to provide a solution, calling it Iran’s third, “most important step” away from the deal.

“Iran’s third step is of an extraordinarily significant nature,” Rouhani said, without giving details.


Later on Wednesday, Rouhani elaborated, saying in comments aired on state TV that starting on Friday, Iran’s atomic agency would work on the research and development of “all kinds” of centrifuge machines that can more quickly enrich uranium. However, he said the activities will be “peaceful” and under surveillance of the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Under the nuclear deal, Iran has been limited to operating 5,060 older-model IR-1 centrifuges. A centrifuge is a device that enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas.

The country is allowed to test no more than 30 of the stronger, IR-6 centrifuges once the deal has been in place for 8½ years. The deal is murky about limits before that point, which will arrive in 2023.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Ministry announced that seven members of the 23-member crew of the seized British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero would be released — an apparent goodwill gesture meant to defuse tensions.

Iran seized the tanker in July, saying it violated Iranian laws, after authorities in the British territory of Gibraltar seized an Iranian tanker said to be to be carrying fuel to Syria in violation of EU sanctions on oil sales to Damascus.

The Iranian vessel — the Adrian Darya 1, formerly known as the Grace 1 — was released earlier this month and set sail for the eastern Mediterranean. It turned off its tracking beacon off the coast of Syria this week, leading to renewed speculation that its oil will end up there, despite earlier assurances to the contrary.

Both Rouhani and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi expressed doubts Europe would succeed in salvaging the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

U.S. sanctions imposed after President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal have curbed Iran’s oil exports and sent its economy into free fall while what was left of the deal steadily unraveled.

French officials said the U.S. has a pivotal role in the European bid to get Iran to comply, notably that Washington issue waivers for specific oil deals, according to French officials.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters Tuesday that Trump must “obligatorily issue waivers on this or that point.” The French president’s top diplomat had the same message: Credit lines or not, a potential deal “only works with American waivers” so that transactions can be made, notably with China, Japan and India, three main clients of Tehran. The official asked to remain anonymous, given the sensitive nature of the subject.

The official suggested that a new step by Iran away from the nuclear deal does not kill efforts to save it.

Tensions have risen across the Persian Gulf over mysterious tanker explosions, the shooting down of a U.S. military surveillance drone by Iran and the U.S. deploying more troops and warplanes to the region.

Under the nuclear agreement, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. But since Trump’s pullout, Iran has already taken steps contrary to the terms of the deal although it insisted it remained within the framework of the agreement.