Iranians walk below a mural of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (right) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) in Tehran on Saturday. Agence France-Presse
Iran on Saturday said it now uses arrays of advanced centrifuges prohibited by its 2015 nuclear deal and can enrich uranium “much more beyond” current levels to weapons-grade material, taking a third step away from the accord while warning Europe has little time to offer it new terms.
Iran separately acknowledged Saturday it had seized another ship and detained 12 Filipino crewmembers.
Iranian state TV said the tugboat and its 12 crewmembers were seized on suspicion of smuggling diesel fuel near the Strait of Hormuz.
The report did not elaborate. In Manila, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs said it was checking details of the reported seizure.
While insisting Iran doesn’t seek a nuclear weapon, the comments by Behrouz Kamalvandi of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran threatened pushing uranium enrichment far beyond levels ever reached in the country. Prior to the atomic deal, Iran only reached up to 20%, which itself still is only a short technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.
The IAEA said on Saturday it was aware of Iran’s announcement and “agency inspectors are on the ground in Iran and they will report any relevant activities to IAEA headquarters in Vienna.”
It did not elaborate.
Kamalvandi also said Iran would allow UN inspectors to continue to monitor sites in the country.
A top official from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency was expected to meet with Iranian officials in Tehran on Sunday.
In Paris, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Iran’s announcement wasn’t a surprise.
“The Iranians are going to pursue what the Iranians have always intended to pursue,” Esper said at a news conference with his French counterpart, Florence Parly.
For his part, Trump has said he remains open for direct talks with Iran. A surprise visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the Group of Seven summit in France last month raised the possibility of direct talks between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, perhaps at this month’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, though officials in Tehran later seemed to dismiss the idea.
Speaking to journalists while flanked by advanced centrifuges, Kamalvandi said Iran has begun using an array of 20 IR-6 centrifuges and another 20 of IR-4 centrifuges.
An IR-6 can produce enriched uranium 10 times as fast as an IR-1, Iranian officials say, while an IR-4 produces five times as fast.
The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges to enrich uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. By starting up these advanced centrifuges, Iran further cuts into the one year that experts estimate Tehran would need to have enough material for building a nuclear weapon if it chose to pursue one.
“Under current circumstances, the Islamic Republic of Iran is capable of increasing its enriched uranium stockpile as well as its enrichment levels and that is not just limited to 20 per cent,” Kamalvandi said.
“We are capable inside the country to increase the enrichment much more beyond that.”
Iran plans to have two cascades, one with 164 advanced IR-2M centrifuges and another with 164 IR-5 centrifuges, running in two months as well, Kamalvandi said. A cascade is a group of centrifuges working together to more quickly enrich uranium.
Iran has already increased its enrichment up to 4.5%, above the 3.67% allowed under the deal, as well as gone beyond its 300-kilogram limit for low-enriched uranium.
While Kamalvandi stressed that “the Islamic Republic is not after the bomb,” he warned that Iran was running out of ways to stay in the accord.
“If Europeans want to make any decision, they should do it soon,” he said.
France had floated a proposed $15 billion line of credit to allow Iran to sell its oil abroad despite US sanctions. Another trade mechanism proposed by Europe called INSTEX also has faced difficulty.