Iran amasses more uranium than allowed by nuclear deal
Iran announced yesterday it had amassed more low-enriched uranium than permitted under its 2015 deal with major powers, its first major step in violation of the deal since the United States pulled out of it more than a year ago.
The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors Iran's nuclear programme under the deal, confirmed in Vienna that Tehran had breached the limit.
The step could have far-reaching consequences for diplomacy at a time when European countries are trying to pull the US and Iran back from the brink of war, less than two weeks after Washington aborted air strikes at the last minute.
The Europeans, who opposed last year's decision by US President Donald Trump to abandon the nuclear deal signed under Barack Obama, had pleaded with Iran to keep within its parameters.
Iran has said it aims to do so but cannot do so indefinitely, as long as sanctions imposed by Mr Trump have deprived it of the benefits it was meant to receive in return for accepting curbs on its nuclear programme under the deal.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran had passed the threshold, exactly as it had warned it would: "We have said very transparently what we will do."
The move is a test of European diplomacy after French, British and German officials had promised a strong diplomatic response if Iran fundamentally breached the deal.
British Prime Minister Theresa May's office said the country was urgently considering its next moves along with its partners, and urged Iran to "reverse this step". UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was "deeply worried" by Iran's announcement.
A European diplomat told Reuters there was a mechanism under the agreement to deal with "any inconsistencies", and it would be up to a joint commission of signatories to decide next steps.
Iran announced in May that it would speed up production of enriched uranium in response to the Trump administration sharply tightening sanctions against it that month. Washington has now effectively ordered all countries to halt purchases of Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own, which Tehran calls "economic war" designed to starve its population.
In the two months since the US sanctions were tightened, the confrontation has taken on a military dimension, with Washington blaming Tehran for attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region, and Iran shooting down a US drone.
Mr Trump ordered air strikes in retaliation, only to call them off minutes before impact.
The nuclear deal imposes limits both on how much enriched uranium Iran can hold and on how pure its stocks can be, a pair of related thresholds intended to keep Tehran from amassing enough material, in a sufficiently refined state, to make a nuclear bomb.
Mr Zarif said Iran's next move would be to enrich uranium slightly beyond the 3.67pc maximum purity allowed under the deal, a threshold Tehran has previously said it would cross on July 7. That could be seen as a bigger breach than yesterday's announcement that it holds too much material at a permissible purity.
European officials had held last-ditch talks with Iranian envoys last week in the hope of persuading Tehran not to breach either threshold. Those talks failed, with the Iranians saying European efforts to shield the Islamic Republic from the impact of US sanctions were insufficient.
The Europeans say they want to help Iran boost its economy. But so far those efforts have failed, with Iran largely shunned on oil markets and foreign companies having cancelled plans to invest for fear of falling foul of US rules.
The confrontation has put the US in the position of demanding that the Europeans ensure Iranian compliance with an agreement that Washington itself has rejected.
Washington says sanctions are aimed at pushing Tehran back to the negotiating table. Iran says it cannot talk as long as Washington is ignoring the deal that it signed.
Israel, which considers the Iranian nuclear programme an existential threat, has backed Mr Trump's hard line, as have US allies among the rich Arab states of the Gulf, which consider Iran a foe and benefit from having its oil kept off markets.
"Just imagine what will happen if the material stockpiled by the Iranians becomes fissionable, at military enrichment grade, and then an actual bomb," Joseph Cohen, head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, told a security conference. "The Middle East, and then the entire world, will be a different place. Therefore, the world must not allow this to happen."