DUBAI– Iran announced on Sunday it will boost its uranium enrichment in a few hours above a cap set by a landmark 2015 nuclear deal, a move that could eventually culminate in the return of all global sanctions on Tehran.
In a sign of heightening Western concern, French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Iran’s decision as a “violation” of the pact which the United States pulled out of last year.
Raising the prospect of fresh regional tensions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the step was extremely dangerous and again called on Europe to impose punitive sanctions on Tehran.
In a live news conference, senior Iranian officials said Tehran would keep reducing its commitments every 60 days, unless European signatories of the pact protect it from U.S. sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump.
“We are fully prepared to enrich uranium at any level and with any amount,” said Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation.
“In a few hours the technical process will come to an end and the enrichment beyond 3.67% will begin,” referring to the limit set in the 2015 agreement.
But Iran said it was willing to show flexibility.
All measures taken by Iran to scale back its commitments to the nuclear deal were “reversible” if the European signatories of the pact fulfilled their obligations, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday.
The Iran nuclear deal dispute resolution mechanism will not be triggered for now, said a source at President Macron’s Elysee office on Sunday. “It’s not an option at this moment,” the source said.
Under that so-called snapback, if a series of steps designed to resolve differences fails, sanctions in all previous U.N. resolutions would be re-imposed.
Netanyahu called for a strong response.
“The enrichment of uranium is made for one reason and one reason only – it’s for the creation of atomic bombs,” said the Israeli prime minister, a vocal opponent of the 2015 agreement.
A top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday the clerical establishment fully backed the decision.
Daniel Byman, senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said Iran was engaged in a tricky balancing act.
“The step is meant to show domestic audiences that Iran is standing up to U.S. pressure. It is also meant to convey a sense of risk to European audiences that Iran may provoke a crisis,” he said.
“But at the same time show that Iran is taking steps that are reversible and that it is the United States, not Iran, that is seeking to escalate things”.
Under the pact, Iran can enrich uranium to 3.67% fissile material, well below the 20% it was reaching before the deal and the roughly 90% suitable for a nuclear weapon.
Kamalvandi said Iran would enrich uranium for use in fuelling its Bushehr power plant, to the level of 5%, confirming what Reuters reported on Saturday.
Iran shows no sign of caving in to pressure from Trump in a confrontation that has taken on a military dimension, with Washington blaming Tehran for attacks on oil tankers, and Iran shooting down a U.S. drone, prompting aborted U.S. air strikes.
Long-tense relations between Tehran and Washington deteriorated in May 2018 when Trump withdrew from the deal reached before he took office, and reimposed sanctions – saying the agreement did not go far enough, and did not address Iran’s missile program or its policies in the Middle East.
Tehran says its missile program is defensive.
Tehran pressures European powers
Iran’s challenge to Washington is a test of European diplomacy. The Europeans, who opposed last year’s decision by Trump to abandon the agreement, had pleaded with Iran to keep within its parameters.
Tehran has expressed frustration over what it says is the failure of parties to the agreement to salvage the pact – signed along with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – by protecting Iran’s economic interests from U.S. sanctions.
“European countries have failed to uphold their commitments and they are also responsible,” Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator, told the news conference in Tehran.
“The doors of diplomacy are open but what matters are new initiatives which are required.”
Political analyst Hamid Farahvashian described Iran’s position as an “iron fist in velvet glove”.
“There is a hidden message … which is we are ready, we have capabilities, we can breach the deal but still give the other parties time to fulfil their obligations,” he said.
Under the 2015 deal between Iran and six powers, most international sanctions against Tehran were lifted in return for limitations on its nuclear work.
Those restrictions were aimed at extending the time Iran would need to produce a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to a year from roughly two to three months.
Iran’s main demand – in talks with the European parties to the deal and as a precondition to any talks with the United States – is to be allowed to sell its oil at the levels before Washington pulled out of the agreement and restored sanctions.
Iranian crude exports were around 300,000 barrels per day or less in late June, industry sources said, a fraction of the more than 2.5 million bpd Iran shipped in April 2018, the month before Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal.