TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has broken the limit set on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, international inspectors and Tehran said Monday, marking its first major departure from the unraveling agreement a year after the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the accord.
It also further heightens tensions across the wider Middle East in the wake of Iran recently shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone, mysterious attacks on oil tankers that America and the Israelis blame on Tehran, and bomb-laden drone assaults by Yemen’s Iranian-backed rebels targeting Saudi Arabia.
Though Trump pulled back from airstrikes targeting Iran after the U.S. drone was shot down, Washington has rushed an aircraft carrier strike group, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and thousands of additional troops to the region. That’s raised fears that a miscalculation or further incidents could push the two sides into an armed conflict, some 40 years after the Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Speaking to journalists in Tehran, Zarif acknowledged Iran that broken through the limit set by the accord.
“We had previously announced this and we have said it transparently what we are going to do,” Zarif said. “We are going to act according to what we have announced and we consider it our right reserved in the nuclear deal.”
Iran Insists Nuclear Program for Peaceful Purposes
The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, later said its director general had informed officials that it verified Monday that Iran had broken through the limit.
Under terms of the nuclear deal, Iran agreed to have less than 661 pounds of uranium enriched to a maximum of 3.67%. Previously, Iran enriched as high as 20%, which is a short technical step away from reaching weapons-grade levels. It also held up to 22,046 pounds of the higher-enriched uranium.
Neither Zarif nor the U.N. agency said how much uranium Iran now had on hand. Last week, an Iranian official in Vienna said that Tehran was 2.8 kilograms away from the limit. Iran previously announced it had quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium, which at under 3.67% is enough to power a nuclear reactor to create electricity, but is far below weapons-grade levels.
However, Iran could have chosen to mix the low-enriched uranium with raw uranium, diluting it and bringing it down under the cap. Pushing past the limit served as a notice to Europe, Zarif said.
Breaking the stockpile limit by itself doesn’t radically change the one year that experts say Iran would need to have enough material for an atomic bomb, if it chooses to pursue one. Iran long has insisted its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, despite Western fears about it.
No Immediate Reaction From U.S.
But by coupling an increasing stockpile with higher enrichment, it begins to close that one-year window and hamper any diplomatic efforts at saving the accord.
At the time of the 2015 deal, which was agreed to by Iran, the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain, experts believed Iran needed anywhere from several weeks to three months to have enough material for a bomb.
“The next step is about the 3.67% limitation, which we will implement too,” he warned.
There was no immediate reaction from the U.S. Trump campaigned on pulling the U.S. from the deal, which saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Since Trump withdrew America from the pact a year ago, the U.S. has re-imposed previous sanctions and added new ones, as well as warning other nations they would be subject to sanctions as well if they import Iranian oil.
In Moscow, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov noted that Iran had warned in advance it was going to exceed the limit set by the deal and emphasized that Tehran’s move followed “unthinkable” U.S. pressure.
“Exceeding the 300-kilogram limit causes regret, but shouldn’t be overdramatized. It must be seen as a natural result of the preceding events,” Ryabkov said. “Iran has faced an unprecedented and unthinkable U.S. sanction pressure, effectively meaning a total oil embargo, an attempt to strangle a sovereign state.”