TEHRAN: Iran faces a one-week deadline of July 15 to end its “nuclear blackmail” or risk snapback global sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council.
Tehran said on Sunday it would enrich uranium beyond the 3.67 percent limit set by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog.
Tehran also threatened to abandon more commitments unless a solution is found with parties to the landmark 2015 agreement.
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 US pressure. It is also meant to convey a sense of risk to European audiences that Iran may provoke a crisis,” he said.
In a coordinated response, other signatories to the JCPOA — the UK, France, Germany and the EU — issued separate statements with identical wording. They urged Iran to “immediately stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its obligations,” and added: “We are coordinating with other JCPOA participants regarding the next steps under the terms of the deal.”
The “next step” is triggering the JCPOA dispute resolution mechanism. A spokesman for French President Emmanuel Macron said this would not happen immediately, but the French government was setting a deadline of July 15 for constructive progress with Iran.
Failure by Tehran to meet its obligations will begin a 65-day process that ends at the UN Security Council, and the snapback of sanctions imposed by all previous UN resolutions.
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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Tehran could further scale back its commitments, but “all such steps are reversible” if European countries deliver on their part.
The move to start enriching uranium above the agreed maximum purification level of 3.67 percent comes despite opposition from the European Union and the United States, which has quit the deal.
President Hassan Rouhani’s order to exceed the threshold would be implemented “in a few hours” after the last technical details were sorted, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said live on state television.
Germany said it strongly urged Iran to stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its commitments.
"We are in contact with the other JCPoA participants regarding the next steps," a German foreign office spokesman said.
The UK foreign ministry issued a similar statement, adding that "Iran must immediately stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its obligations."
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran's actions would only leave it facing further sanctions and isolation.
Extremely concerned at Iran's announcement that it has started uranium enrichment above the limit agreed to in the #JCPoA. We strongly urge Iran to stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its commitments under the JCPoA. pic.twitter.com/Vt1DSVZo2Z
— GermanForeignOffice (@GermanyDiplo) July 7, 2019
Donald Trump repeated his warning that Iran would never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.
Rouhani initially flagged Tehran’s intentions on May 8, exactly a year on from US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoning the multilateral deal.
He has said the move is in response to a failure by remaining parties to keep their promise to help Iran work around biting sanctions reimposed by the US in the second half of last year.
The arch-rivals have been locked in an escalating war of words with Washington blaming Iran for a series of attacks on tanker ships and Tehran shooting down an American surveillance drone, raising fears of a conflict that both sides have said they want to avoid.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on Sunday singled out Iran’s declining oil sales and the effect of financial sanctions as the main issues that needed to be solved, or Tehran would further step back from its nuclear commitments.
“We hope we can reach a solution otherwise after 60 days we will take the third step as well,” he said, adding that Tehran would give further details at an “opportune moment.”
Iran’s latest expansion of its nuclear program will lead to further isolation and sanctions. Nations should restore the longstanding standard of no enrichment for Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s regime, armed with nuclear weapons, would pose an even greater danger to the world.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) July 7, 2019
Iran has previously threatened to also resume building as of July 7 a heavy water reactor — capable of one day producing plutonium — in Arak in central Iran, a project that had been mothballed under the agreement.
However since Iran delivered its ultimatum on the Arak reactor “good technical progress” had been made with parties to the deal on modernizing the reactor, convincing Iran to postpone its decision, Araghchi said.
The 2015 deal was reached between Iran and six world powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, the United States and Russia — and saw Tehran agree to drastically scale down its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Washington began reimposing sanctions in August 2018 and has targeted crucial sectors including oil exports and the banking system, fueling a deep recession.
It is not yet clear how far Iran will boost enrichment.
But a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hinted on Friday it could reach five percent.
Iran says that it is not violating the deal, citing terms of the agreement allowing one side to temporarily abandon some of commitments if it deems the other side is not respecting its part of the accord.
The diplomatic chiefs of Britain, France, Germany and the EU said earlier in the week that they were “extremely concerned” by Iran’s decision to breach some of its commitments.
Trump, meanwhile, has warned Iran that it is “playing with fire.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Sunday’s announcement a “very dangerous step” and called on France, Britain and Germany to impose “harsh sanctions” on Iran.
French President Emmanuel Macron told Rouhani of his “strong concern” over the risk of weakening the nuclear agreement during a telephone call Saturday, according to a statement from the Elysee Palace.
However, Macron pledged to “explore by July 15 the conditions for a resumption of dialogue between all parties,” the statement said.
Iran says it exercised “strategic patience” for a year after the US withdrawal, waiting for the other signatories to make good on promised economic benefits.
But on May 8, Tehran announced it would no longer respect two key limits — a 1.3-ton maximum for heavy water reserves and a cap of 300 kilogrammes on its low-enriched uranium stockpile.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has scheduled a special meeting on Iran’s nuclear program for July 10.