0210 GMT November 18, 2019
Iran warned on Monday it might sharply step up its enrichment of uranium to 20% purity and restart deactivated centrifuges and as its next potential moves away from a 2015 nuclear agreement that the United States abandoned last year.
Spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Behrouz Kamalvandi said the country’s uranium enrichment level passed 4.5%, exceeding the 3.67% uranium enrichment cap set by the nuclear deal.
"This morning Iran passed the 4.5% level in uranium enrichment... this level of purity completely satisfies the power plant fuel requirements of the country," Kamalvandi said.
The official hinted that Iran might consider going to 20% enrichment or higher as a third step, if the material is needed.
"Twenty percent is not needed now, but if we want we will produce it. When we've put aside 3.67% enrichment we have no obstacle or problem with this action," Kamalvandi said.
Enriching uranium up to 20% purity would be a dramatic move, since that was the level Iran had achieved before the deal was put in place.
Kamalvandi said the authorities were discussing options that included the prospect of enriching uranium to 20% purity or beyond, and restarting centrifuges that were dismantled as one of the nuclear deal’s core aims.
"There is the 20% option and there are options even higher than that but each in its own place. Today if our country's needs are one thing, we won't pursue something else just to scare the other side a little more. But they know it's an upward trend," he said. Restarting IR-2 and IR-2 M centrifuges was an option, he said.
The decision to ramp up uranium enrichment came less than a week after Iran acknowledged breaking the 300-kilogram limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile.
Iran has said it will take another, third step away from the deal within 60 days but has so far held back from formally announcing what that next step would entail.
The US has imposed sanctions that eliminate any of the benefits Iran was meant to receive in return for agreeing to curbs on its nuclear program under the 2015 deal with world powers.
One of the main achievements of the deal was Iran’s agreement to dismantle its advanced IR-2M centrifuges, which are used to purify uranium. Iran had 1,000 of them installed at its large enrichment site at Natanz before the deal was reached. Under the deal, it is allowed to operate only up to two for mechanical testing.
Kamalvandi did not specify how much uranium Iran might purify to the higher level, nor how many centrifuges it would consider restarting. He did not mention other more advanced centrifuges, including the most advanced, the IR-8.
‘Door of diplomacy is open’
The nuclear agreement guaranteed Iran access to world trade in return for accepting curbs on its nuclear program. Iran says the deal allows it to respond to the US breach by reducing its compliance, and it will do so every 60 days.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi on Monday said Iran appreciated the efforts of some nations to save the deal, but offered a jaded tone on whether Tehran trusted anyone in the negotiations.
“We have no hope nor trust in anyone nor any country but the door of diplomacy is open,” Mousavi said.
He gave a sharp, yet unelaborated warning to Europe about another 60-day deadline Iran set Sunday. That deadline will come Sept. 5, though Iran’s Vice President Es’haq Jahangiri on Monday described the deadline as being Sept. 7. The two dates could not be immediately reconciled.
“If the remaining countries in the deal, especially the Europeans, do not fulfill their commitments seriously, and not do anything more than talk, Iran’s third step will be harder, more steadfast and somehow stunning,” Mousavi said.
The new US measures in place since May are intended to bar Iran from all oil exports and have succeeded in effectively pushing Iran out of mainstream oil markets.
European countries do not directly support the US sanctions, but have been unable to come up with ways to allow Iran to avert them.
Despite tough talk from Washington and Tehran, there are no signs that either side was prepared for a full blown confrontation.
“As repeatedly announced before, Iran doesn’t seek war against any country but it has well learned how to defend itself,” Iran’s Army Chief Major General Seyyed Abdolrahim Mousavi said.
A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry said on Monday that Iran must be persuaded to stick to its commitments to the nuclear deal.
“The ball is clearly in Iran’s court. We want to preserve the deal. For this, parties must stick to it,” the spokesman told a regular government news conference.
Asked at which point a red line would be crossed for the German government, the spokesman said: “Our objective is that Iran abides by the deal.” He added that Tehran must reverse all steps that contradict the landmark accord.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that Russia is concerned over Iran’s reduction of obligations to the deal.
"The situation is of course concerning," Peskov told journalists. "Russia aims to continue dialogue and efforts on the diplomatic front. We are still supporters of the JCPOA (the nuclear deal)."
He said the announcement by Iran is one of the "consequences" of the United States abandoning the landmark deal.
"Russia and President (Vladimir) Putin warned of the consequences that would be imminent after one of the countries decided to end its obligations and exit the deal," Peskov said.
China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday Beijing regrets Iran’s decision to boost uranium enrichment, reiterating that the standoff needed to be resolved diplomatically.
At a daily briefing, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang also reiterated that China called on all sides involved to exercise restraint.
Reuters, AFP, AP and Press TV contributed this this story.