Left to right: Iranian Atomic Energy Organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi, government spokesman Ali Rabiei and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi appear at a news conference in Tehran on July 7 to announce that Iran will begin enriching uranium beyond the 3.67% cap set by the JCPOA. (Hamed Malekpour/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran Challenges US, Says it Will Enrich Uranium ‘to Any Level’ (with AUDIO INTERVIEW)

Europeans urge Tehran to stick to 2015 JCPOA agreement even though Washington has pulled out and is renewing crippling sanctions

In a stark challenge to the US, as well as a test of European diplomacy, Iran said on Sunday it was ready to enrich any amount of uranium to any level, seeking to exert pressure on the remaining signatories to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to keep their side of the deal.

The JCPOA, signed by the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, the European Union and Iran, was aimed at stopping Tehran’s purported drive toward nuclear weapons by eliminating crippling sanctions. The US re-imposed severe sanctions after the Trump Administration withdrew from the agreement last year, saying the Iranians were not upholding their end of the bargain.

In a news conference televised live from the Iranian capital on June 7, Iranian Atomic Energy Organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said his country would continue to reduce its commitments to the JCPOA every 60 days unless the remaining signatories moved to protect it from the renewed US sanctions.

“In a few hours, the technical process will come to an end and the enrichment beyond 3.67 percent will begin,” said Behrouz Kamalvandi. “And tomorrow, early in the morning, when the IAEA [the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog] takes [its] sample, we will have gone beyond 3.67%.”

The 2015 agreement allowed Iran to enrich no more than 300 kg of uranium to 3.67% fissile material, below the 20% it was reaching before the deal and well below the roughly 90% suitable for a nuclear weapon. Last week, Tehran, in the first step of its threats, claimed to be holding more than 300 kg.

Kamalvandi said Iran would enrich uranium to 5% for use in fueling its Bushehr nuclear power plant.

“We are fully prepared to enrich uranium to any level and with any amount,” he said.

The sanctions the US re-imposed are seen as crippling Iran’s economy, and many say that Tehran is frustrated with the European signatories for not doing enough to compensate or help the Islamic Republic get around them.

“European countries have failed to uphold their commitments and they are also responsible,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister and senior nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, told the news conference. “The doors of diplomacy are open, but what matters are new initiatives, which are required.”

Mehdi Mahmoudi, an Iranian journalist based in Tehran, messaged The Media Line via Twitter that he believed declining oil sales were behind the Iranian decision.

“[The] US withdrawal from JCPOA and [the] EU’s failure to fulfil its obligations to decrease… US sanctions on Iran’s economy, especially in selling oil, have prompted Iran [to take] this step,” Mahmoudi wrote. “I believe Iran is quite serious, and if the EU does not do anything in the next 60 days, Tehran [will] jump [to a] 3rd step.”

That step would be enrichment to 20%, where much of Tehran’s stockpile stood before JCPOA.

Mahmoudi added that “in my opinion, France, Germany and [the] UK will act cautiously and try to [reengage in] talks with Iran.”

Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American journalist and Washington-based consulting editor at the British newspaper The Independent, told The Media Line that the US withdrawal from the deal and the renewed sanctions had led to this response.

“Iranians remained in the deal for one year and waited for other signatories to provide economic benefits in the absence of the US,” she explained. “But that did not happen, and pressure only increased from Washington. So Iran now sees no benefit in remaining in the deal. Now they are taking a new path of confrontation to put more pressure on other signatories, especially Europe.”

Mortazavi says the enriched uranium stockpile matters greatly for Tehran.

“This is part of the national pride that comes with their domestic nuclear program. And also, it’s the first step they can take to push the limits of the deal without completely abandoning it,” she said.

Ambassador Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The Media Line that Iran had decided to breach its cap on low-level enrichment to signal its frustration with the EU and as an attempt to maintain the EU’s commitment to JCPOA.

“This means the EU finding a way for its companies to continue commercial relations with Iranian counterparts in defiance of the sanctions the Trump Administration reapplied to Iran,” said he said.

Despite the international outrage, Bryza doesn’t think the Iranian announcement is that serious – at least yet.

“Increasing its stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5% is more a signal of intent to enrich to higher levels rather than a serious move by Iran to resume its quest of a nuclear weapon,” he explained. “If this step, however, leads to uranium enrichment up to 20%, then Iran will have taken a serious step toward a nuclear-weapons capability by bringing Iran much closer to being able to enrich up to nuclear weapons grade, which is over 90%.”

Relations between Tehran and Washington have been on a downward spiral ever since US President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement in 2018. Tensions reached a peak in June when the sides came close to a military confrontation in the Gulf, with the US blaming Iran for attacks on oil tankers, and Iran shooting down an American drone, prompting plans for US air strikes that were aborted, supposedly at the last minute.

Mahmoudi asserted that the US is limited in its options.

“Washington can’t do anything except sanction Iran again and exert pressure on Europe” to join the “pressure campaign…,” he said.

The Europeans broke with the US over its withdrawal and have appealed to Iran to remain in the agreement.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said he and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had agreed to seek conditions for a resumption of dialogue on the Iranian nuclear question by July 15.

London, in response to the latest Iranian announcement, said Iran must “immediately stop and reverse” its plan to breach the nuclear deal.

Berlin expressed dismay.

“We strongly urge Iran to stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its commitments,” a German Foreign Ministry spokesman said of Tehran’s announcement. “We are in contact with the other JCPOA participants regarding the next steps.”

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a staunch supporter of the US decision to abandon the nuclear agreement and an arch enemy of Iran, called Tehran’s enrichment declaration a “very dangerous step.”

Netanyahu is demanding that Europe help enforce the agreement as more pressure is applied by the US and Israel.

“This measure is a very dangerous step, and I call on my friends, the leaders of France, Britain and Germany: You signed the deal and said the moment they’d take this measure, harsh sanctions would be imposed,” the Israeli prime minister said.

Israeli defense analyst Amir Oren told The Media Line that Iran’s announcement should be a wake-up call to Europe’s major capitals.

“Iran wants to challenge the ‘EU3’ to put its money where its mouth is,” Oren said. “The JCPOA is no longer tenable if only one party [plus Russia and China, which matter less] complies with it. So it’s a sort of a wake-up call to Berlin and Paris: Do they really want to go back to 2014 or even 2012 and risk escalation? London, after Gibraltar [the recent seizure by British Royal Marines of an Iranian oil tanker said to be headed to Syria with Iranian crude] and with [Prime Minister Theresa] May leaving, is a puzzle.”

Oren said, however, that it would be best if Netanyahu stayed out of the way and gave negotiations a chance.

“Israel can and should do nothing,” he said. “It’s not yet its business, and [Israel] will suffer the inevitable backlash if it pushes Trump toward war. Iran is at least a year away from its first nuclear warhead – time enough for diplomacy.”

Trump, meanwhile, has warned Iran that it is “playing with fire.”

For more on Iran’s decision, The Media Line spoke with Brian O’Toole of the Atlantic Council. He’s a former senior official at the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

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