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Iran fans the flames in nuclear treaty reversal

President Rouhani states country will now stockpile enriched uranium at will unless it receives relief from US sanctions

Iran, which has breached the limit of stockpiled enriched uranium set in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal signed with major Western powers, is pledging to hike enrichment to whatever level is needed from this weekend.

By doing so, the country risks the resumption of additional international sanctions, further hurting its economy, which is suffering from a US ban targeting its oil exports.

Tehran has repeatedly threatened to increase enrichment above the 3.67% level allowed under the nuclear deal by 7 July unless it receives some relief from US sanctions. European countries are struggling to meet Tehran’s demands to keep the nuclear deal alive.

“Our enrichment rate is not going to be 3.67% anymore,” President Hassan Rouhani said. “It’s going to be as much as we want it to be.” Rouhani’s comments came after Iran on Monday said it had breached the limit.

“From (7 July) if you don’t operate (according to) the programme and time frame of all the commitments you’ve given us, we will return the Arak reactor to its previous condition,” said Rouhani.

“Meaning, the condition that you say is dangerous and can produce plutonium,” he said, referring to a key ingredient in a nuclear weapon. “We will return to that unless you take action regarding all your commitments regarding Arak.”

The Arak reactor is in central Iran.

Most United Nations sanctions on Iran were removed in January 2016 when the deal — called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — was implemented.

It was originally agreed by Iran, the UK, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US.

However, US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the pact last year, claiming it did not do enough to restrict Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Trump then moved to impose sanctions that have decimated Iran’s oil exports and also cut off Tehran from the global banking system.

European nations have warned Iran that any violation would bring consequences as the deal allows for the re-imposition of multilateral sanctions that were lifted in return for limiting its nuclear activities.

Iran’s latest decision comes at a time of high tension in the Middle East, with the shooting down of a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz by the Iranian military in disputed circumstances last month.

Washington has also accused Tehran of being behind two sets of attacks on oil tankers in the past two months, highlighting the risk to crude shipments from the vital Persian Gulf region.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, confirmed that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium exceeded the limit of 3.67% that is seen as the amount needed for civilian nuclear power and was allowed under the deal.

Iran has complained that it cannot reap the economic benefits promised under the 2015 nuclear accord because European companies are afraid of running afoul of sanctions reimposed by the US.

Tehran’s announcements on enrichment drew a warning from Trump that Tehran was “playing with fire”.

The move marked Iran’s first major step beyond the terms of the pact since the US pulled out of it more than a year ago.

Zarif said the development did not violate the accord, arguing Tehran was exercising its right to respond to the US walkout.

The breach risks far-reaching consequences for diplomacy at a time when European countries are trying to defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran.

It comes less than two weeks after Trump said he ordered airstrikes on Iran in retaliation for shooting down the US drone only to cancel them at the last minute.

French President Emmanuel Macron urged Iran on Tuesday to reverse its direction on uranium enrichment, while fellow signatories Russia and China also urged Tehran to show restraint.

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