Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani has announced that the Islamic republic is to inject gas into centrifuges, a significant step away from the nuclear deal agreed with world powers and in defiance of European calls for restraint.
Last year, US president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear deal and since May Iran has started rolling back its commitments to the 2015 accord in protest at what it calls the failure of the European signatories to help an economy crippled by US sanctions.
While previous moves were more focused on research and development, western diplomats in Tehran fear the injection of gas into centrifuges, which had previously spun empty, is an escalation by the authorities in the Islamic republic and threatens the nuclear deal.
“Our next step is going to be in Fordow [an underground enrichment facility] where we have 1,044 centrifuges . . . and will inject gas into centrifuges,” Mr Rouhani said on state television on Tuesday. “This step might discourage them [Europeans] . . . I understand their sensitivities toward Fordow and its centrifuges. But whenever they meet their promises we will cut back gas injection.”
Fordow is Iran’s second-biggest enrichment facility and, under the terms of the nuclear deal, is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mr Rouhani said that the IAEA could continue its supervision of the facility. One EU diplomat described the move as “very bad” news for the deal. The diplomat added: “Fordow is particularly sensitive due to its past history as an originally undeclared facility.”
In public, EU countries led by France, which has been trying to save the deal, adopted a more measured tone.
The French foreign ministry said Iran’s intention to increase its enrichment capacity broke the terms of the nuclear deal, adding that it was awaiting a report on the development from the IAEA.
“We remain committed to the JCPOA [nuclear deal] and we urge Iran to reverse its decisions that breach the accord, wholly comply with its obligations and co-operate fully with the IAEA,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Iran, which has been plunged into a deep recession, has said it does not want nuclear weapons and has no intention of pulling out of the nuclear agreement but that it will decrease its commitments in response to the US sanctions.
Tehran had previously announced it had increased its stockpile of uranium above the agreed 300kg limit under the nuclear deal and enriched uranium to 4.5 per cent purity while warning it could raise it to 20 per cent. Mr Rouhani said on Tuesday that negotiations with European powers would continue and Iran’s retaliatory moves could be reversed as soon as other signatories to the deal met their commitments.
Tehran’s main concern is the restrictions on its oil exports, which have plummeted from 2.8m barrels a day in May last year to under 500,000 b/d.
But even though US sanctions have deprived Iran of large amounts of petrodollars, authorities in Tehran have praised the underlying resilience of the Iranian economy. Iran’s leaders have stuck to their controversial regional and military policies. Iran shot down a US drone in June for allegedly violating the country’s airspace and seized a British-flagged tanker in response to British troops’ seizure of an Iranian tanker. The US has also accused Iran of staging attacks through proxies on other oil tankers and on Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil installation.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, on Sunday reiterated that there could be no negotiations with the US unless all sanctions were lifted and Washington joined other signatories of the nuclear deal for talks with Iran.
He said the 1979 Islamic revolution was “basically against the US” for interfering in the country and that Iran “will not sit at the political negotiating table with the US” in order “not to kneel down” to the US. He downplayed efforts by French president Emmanuel Macron to negotiate a way out of the impasse and said that he was either “naive” or an “accomplice” to the US.
On Monday, the US imposed sanctions on nine members of Ayatollah Khamenei’s inner circle — including his chief of staff, the head of Iran’s judiciary and senior military figures. On the same day, the US Treasury also sanctioned Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff, a military body that the US says works with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which Washington views as a terrorist organisation.
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