World & Nation

Iran poised to press ahead with uranium enrichment despite Trump warning

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In this photo released by his office, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a Cabinet meeting in Tehran on July 3, 2019, and warns that his government will increase its enrichment of uranium to “any amount that we want” starting Sunday.
(Iranian Presidency Office )

Despite dire warnings from the United States, Iran will immediately accelerate its enrichment of uranium in violation of the international nuclear accord it signed four years ago, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday.

The step is the latest in Iran’s gradual walk away from the deal it forged with six global powers that President Trump jettisoned last year, and it comes as tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated.

“We will enrich [uranium] to whatever amount we feel like, whatever is necessary and whatever our need is,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast on national television.

Iran would also consider reactivating its Arak heavy-water reactor, dismantled as part of the nuclear deal, unless other signatories — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — do more to shield the Islamic Republic from crippling sanctions imposed by the United States.

Starting Sunday, he said, Iran will begin enriching uranium beyond the 3.67% level allowed under the agreement. This week, Iran said it reached and slightly exceeded that level, which refers to the percentage of a uranium isotope that is considered fissile material potentially suitable for use in a bomb.

“The condition that you say is dangerous and can produce plutonium … we will return to that unless you take action regarding all your commitments,” Rouhani said, apparently addressing the international community. Plutonium can be used in the production of weapons.

The crisis facing Iran, precipitated when Trump abandoned the nuclear deal, has badly damaged its economy, spread discontent domestically and led to tense confrontations with other nations. On June 20, Iran shot down a U.S. drone that it said had violated its airspace. Trump said he came close to ordering airstrikes to punish Iran but backed off. The U.S. said the drone was flying over international waters.

Trump has made clear, however, that he will not always be so lenient with Iran. He warned this week there would be a high price to pay if the country moved closer to being able to build a bomb, although he has not been clear about what the trip line would be.

“Iran has just issued a New Warning,” Trump tweeted Wednesday afternoon. “Rouhani says that they will Enrich Uranium to ‘any amount we want’ if there is no new Nuclear Deal. Be careful with the threats, Iran. They can come back to bite you like nobody has been bitten before!”

Earlier in the week, he warned Iran that it was “playing with fire.”

Trump has spoken of wanting a new and more comprehensive deal with Iran that limits all or most of its military capabilities. Some of his senior advisors, however, advocate for an altogether new government and system.

So far, the steps Iran is taking are relatively small and reversible. But given the high-pitched rhetoric and ill will on both sides, the crisis could spiral downward quickly.

China, Russia and the Europeans have sought ways around the U.S. sanctions, especially after they targeted Iran’s lifeline, oil. But it is difficult to avoid use of the U.S. financial system in global commerce.

Rouhani said Iranian officials were open to negotiations and would return to the commitments made in the accord, including reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium, if sanctions were eased.

Trump has also said he was willing to talk to Iran’s leadership, but his only known gesture — dispatching Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Tehran with a message — was rebuffed.

Under the landmark accord, which was negotiated during the Obama administration to curb Iran’s nuclear program, the Islamic Republic also for the first time allowed United Nations inspectors into its facilities. In several inspections over the last few years, Iran was found to be largely in compliance.

Spurred in part by Israel and Iran’s archrival Saudi Arabia, Trump argued the accord was a “terrible” deal that did not go far enough in stopping Iran’s “malign behavior,” including support for militant groups in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Another impediment to tamping down tensions is Washington’s threat to blacklist Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was his country’s negotiator on the nuclear accord and is the face of Iran’s global diplomacy. The Trump administration has hit numerous Iranian politicians and businesspeople with economic sanctions, but going after a foreign minister would be unusual.

Rouhani’s tough comments on Wednesday were intended to show he was determined to earn concessions or he will walk away completely from the deal, analysts said.

“Iranians want this issue moved to the ‘this is no longer business as usual’ category,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

One factor that could determine the fate of the nuclear deal is the degree to which Iranian officials decide to enrich uranium, Maloney said, because that will help indicate whether Iranian officials are being provocative or incrementally backing out of their commitments.

“The higher the level, the more the Europeans will respond negatively,” she said.

Nader Karimi Juni, an independent analyst in Tehran, said Rouhani’s stance Wednesday appeared to be his most defiant since the crisis erupted.

“Iran has already welcomed [a position of] not shying away from military confrontation by shooting down a U.S. drone,” Juni said. “Therefore, there is no obstacle for further confronting the U.S. or Israel or any other country.”

Iran may also be taking a lesson from Trump’s dealings with North Korea, where the American president has been flexible and compliant with that country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, who, unlike Iran, actually has a nuclear arsenal.

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Etehad from Los Angeles. Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.