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Iran will exceed enrichment levels set by nuclear deal, country’s officials say

Iran will exceed enrichment levels set by nuclear deal, country’s officials say
Iran's Atomic Energy Organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi, left, government spokesman Ali Rabiei and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi address the press in Tehran on Sunday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Iran announced on Sunday it had begun the process of enriching uranium beyond the limits set by a 2015 international accord aimed at keeping Tehran from eventually stockpiling nuclear-weapons-grade materials.

In the latest step to counter what Iranian officials have called U.S. “economic terrorism,” Abbas Araghchi, deputy foreign minister, said in a press conference early Sunday that Iran would exceed the enrichment limit “in a few hours,” to fulfill the energy needs for its Bushehr power plant.

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In May 2018, President Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the deal that Iran had made with world powers, and was complying with, and announced a series of “maximum pressure” sanctions designed to paralyze Iran’s economy by pummeling its currency and drastically reducing its oil exports.

On the anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal, Tehran said it would take steps to suspend compliance every 60 days to pressure the remaining signatories — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — to salvage the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Last week, Tehran said it had enriched more than the limit of 660 pounds of low-grade non-fissile uranium stipulated under the deal.

Then, on Friday, Ali Akbar Velayati, the international affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in an interview published on Khamenei’s website that the Bushehr power plant required uranium enriched at a 5% level — well above the 3.67% limit stipulated in the accord. Velayati insisted the increase was being done for “a completely peaceful goal.”

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said there was still no need to enrich uranium to the 20% required by Tehran’s research reactor.

Weapons-grade uranium requires enrichment levels equal to or exceeding 90%.

On Sunday, Araghchi lashed out at European nations for failing to fulfill their obligations under the accord, as well as their slow implementation of a non-dollar financial channel known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, or INSTEX, which would help offset the effect of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Although the “door to diplomacy was still open,” Araghchi said, if there was no solution, Iran would take another step “after the next 60-day deadline,” and could ultimately abandon the deal altogether.

He added that Iran had kicked off reconstruction of its Arak reactor after having dumped cement into its core under the provisions of the international deals.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif insisted Sunday’s measure was a legal one under the terms of the pact.

“We reserve the right to continue to exercise legal remedies,” he tweeted Sunday. “ All such steps are reversible only through E3 compliance.”

Yet it was unclear if that would happen.

Although Britain remained “fully committed to the deal,” a foreign office spokesman called on Iran to “immediately stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its obligations.”

It was a position echoed by Germany, while French President Emmanuel Macron, who had spoken with his Iranian counterpart on Saturday, had expressed his “strong concern” about the consequences of abandoning the accord.

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U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, meanwhile, took to Twitter to react: “Iran’s latest expansion of its nuclear program will lead to further isolation and sanctions. Nations should restore the longstanding standard of no enrichment for Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s regime, armed with nuclear weapons, would pose an even greater danger to the world.”

Bulos reported from Amman. Mostaghim is a special correspondent.

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