Iran launches plan to bolster uranium enrichment

Iran has launched a plan to increase its uranium enrichment capacity with new centrifuges, raising the pressure on European diplomats scrambling to rescue the crumbling nuclear deal after the US pulled out.

“If conditions allow, maybe tomorrow night at Natanz [plant], we can announce the opening of the centre for production of new centrifuges,” said the vice-president, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, according to conservative news agency Fars on Tuesday.

“What we are doing does not violate the [2015 nuclear] agreement,” he said, specifying this was just the start of the production process and “does not mean that we will start assembling the centrifuges”.

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed it had received a letter from Iran, which Salehi said was submitted on Monday and outlined Tehran’s plans.

Under the 2015 nuclear agreement that Iran signed with world powers, it has the right to build and test certain centrifuges, although detailed restrictions exist for the first 10 years on the types and quantities of the machines.

Salehi also emphasised that these moves “do not mean the negotiations [with Europe] have failed”.

European governments have been trying to salvage the nuclear deal since the US announced its withdrawal and said it would reimpose sanctions on foreign companies working in the Islamic republic by November.

The remaining parties – Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia – have vowed to stay in the accord, but many of their companies have started to wind down Iranian operations.

The EU said a first assessment indicated the new steps announced by Iran did not constitute a violation of the agreement.

“However, at this particularly critical juncture, they will not contribute to build confidence in the nature of the Iranian nuclear programme,” Maja Kocijančič, the spokeswoman for the EU’s diplomatic chief, Federica Mogherini, said.

On Monday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned the Europeans that “Iran will never tolerate both suffering from sanctions and nuclear restrictions” and called for preparations to speed up uranium enrichment.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is for civilian uses only, but opponents in the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia accuse it of seeking to build an atomic bomb.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, reacted swiftly to Salehi’s announcement, declaring that the Islamic republic’s aim was “unlimited enrichment of uranium to create an arsenal of nuclear bombs” to destroy his country.

On Sunday, Khamenei repeated the longstanding view from Iran that Israel “is a malignant cancerous tumour in the west Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated”.

Under the 2015 agreement, Iran can enrich uranium to only 3.67%.

If it chooses to abandon the deal, it has stated it could “within days” return to enrichment of 20% – still within the limits of civilian use but allowing for a much quicker jump to military-grade levels of bout 90%.

Iran was seeing limited economic benefits from the deal even before the US withdrawal, thanks to the reluctance of international banks to facilitate trade and a raft of non-nuclear US sanctions that were not touched by the agreement.

European governments have been scrambling to protect their businesses from renewed US sanctions in order to keep Iran in the deal. But several large firms have said it will be impossible to continue operating in Iran except in the unlikely scenario that they win bulletproof exemptions from Washington.

The French car maker PSA, which produces the Peugeot and Citroën brands, on Monday became the latest to announce plans to pull out of Iran, where it sold nearly 445,000 cars last year.

Total, the French energy company, is also preparing its departure from a $4.8bn (£3.6bn) gas project in Iran, with its chief executive saying last week that the chances of a US exemption were “very slim”.


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