President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that Iran would resume uranium enrichment at an underground plant south of Tehran in its latest step back from a troubled 2015 agreement with major powers.
The suspension of all enrichment at the Fordow plant in the mountains near the Shiite holy city of Qom was one of the restrictions on its nuclear activities that Iran accepted in return for the lifting of international sanctions.
But Washington’s abandonment of the deal in May last year followed by its reimposition of crippling sanctions prompted Iran to begin a phased suspension of its own commitments in May this year.
In July, Iran implemented the first phase by announcing it would enrich uranium to levels slightly exceeding the boundaries agreed to in the nuclear deal.
The increased enrichment levels, however, are still far below what would be necessary to build a nuclear weapon and there is no indication the Islamic Republic is pursuing a weapons program at this time.
Iran said the resumption of enrichment at Fordow would be carried out transparently and witnessed by inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Under the terms of the agreement Iran has retained more than 1,000 first-generation centrifuges at the plant which have been running empty or remained idle since it took effect.
“Starting from tomorrow (Wednesday), we will begin injecting (uranium hexafluoride) gas at Fordow,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast by state television.
His announcement came a day after tensions flared anew on the 40th anniversary of the U.S. embassy siege and hostage crisis, with thousands in Tehran taking to the streets and Washington imposing fresh sanctions.
The European Union voiced disquiet at the new step away from the 2015 deal.
“We are concerned by President Rouhani’s announcement today to further reduce Iran’s commitments,” E.U. spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters.
France urged Iran to “go back on its decisions which contradict the accord.”
And Russia too expressed worry, despite its good relations with Iran.
“We are monitoring the development of the situation with concern,” President Vladimir Putin‘s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
“We support the preservation of this deal.”
At the same time, Peskov said Moscow understood Tehran’s concerns over the “unprecedented and illegal sanctions” imposed by Washington.
The move is the fourth announced by Iran since it began responding to Washington’s abandonment of its commitments.
Iran has repeatedly warned the remaining parties to the deal – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – that the agreement can only be rescued if they help it circumvent U.S. sanctions.
European governments have strived to come up with a mechanism that would allow foreign firms to continue to do business with Iran without incurring U.S. penalties.
But to Iran’s mounting frustration, their efforts have so far failed to have any significant impact.
Rouhani stressed that Iran remained committed to efforts to save the 2015 agreement despite its phased suspension of some of its commitments.
“The fourth phase, like the three previous ones, is reversible,” he said.
“We are committed to all the behind-the-scenes negotiations we have with some countries for a solution.
“Over the next two months, we will negotiate more.”
Rouhani said Iran wanted to return to a situation in which “we can easily sell our oil, we can easily use our money in banks.”
If that were achieved, “we will completely go back to the previous situation.”
The European Union warned Monday that its continued support for the deal depended on Tehran fulfilling its commitments.
Its spokeswoman said the bloc “remains committed” to the deal but “our commitment … depends on full compliance by Iran.”
“We have continued to urge Iran to reverse such steps without delay and to refrain from other measures that would undermine the nuclear deal,” Kocijancic said.
On July 1, Iran said it had increased its stockpile of enriched uranium to beyond a 300-kilo maximum set by the deal, and a week later, it announced it had exceeded a 3.67-percent cap on the purity of its uranium stocks.
In order to build a nuclear weapon, uranium must be enriched to a purity level of at least 20 percent. Weapons-grade uranium is typically enriched to about 90 percent.
On September 7, it fired up advanced centrifuges to boost its enriched uranium stockpiles.
On Monday, Iran announced a more than tenfold increase in enriched uranium production as a result of the steps back from the nuclear deal it had already undertaken.
Enriched uranium production has reached five kilograms per day, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters.
That compares with the level of 450 grams two months ago.