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4 months after Trump abandons nuclear deal, Iran says it’s ready to enrich uranium faster than ever

September 12, 2018 at 11:57 AM

Iran's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

When President Trump withdrew the United States from a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in May, critics warned that the move would reset relations with Tehran to the pre-2015 pattern of mutual recriminations and entanglements by proxy — all the while leaving Iran poised to swiftly scale its program back to pre-agreement levels.

After four months, that is exactly what’s happening.

Iran’s top nuclear official told the Associated Press this week in his first comments since the U.S. withdrawal that Iran has completed a facility at its Natanz enrichment center that could build more advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium up to 10 times as fast as before.

Related: Fact-checking President Trump’s reasons for leaving the Iran nuclear deal

But Ali Akbar Salehi also injected a conciliatory note, saying Iran won’t immediately start mass-producing centrifuges or highly enriched uranium if it follows the U.S. lead and exits the deal. Another Iranian official, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, signaled this week that Tehran remains committed to the accord as he made the rare disclosure that Iran operates between 3,000 and 4,000 active centrifuges, which is below the limit of 5,060 permitted under the 2015 agreement to produce low-enriched uranium. (In addition, the accord allows Iran to keep no more than 1,044 centrifuges for conversion to the production of stable isotopes.).

Iran had 20,000 centrifuges installed before the deal, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iran, the European Union, Russia and China have been working to salvage the deal, which was struck during the Obama administration, and several signatories have pledged to prop up Iran's economy. After Trump called the agreement “deeply flawed” in May and pulled out, the United States re-triggered sanctions. Since then, Iran’s currency has plummeted by half against the dollar. Crude oil exports, vital to Iran's economy, are already dropping faster than expected even though U.S. sanctions specifically targeting that sector won't kick in until November.

Related: I lived in an Iran under sanctions. Here’s what it’s like.

Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said his country won't go back to the negotiating table for a new deal demanded by Washington but stands “stronger."

"If we have to go back and withdraw from the nuclear deal, we certainly do not go back to where we were before,” he said. “We will be standing on a much, much higher position."

Meanwhile, the war of words between the United States and Iran — and their proxies in Iraq and Syria — has only intensified. The White House on Tuesday accused Iran of not preventing attacks against U.S. facilities in Iraq by militants linked to Tehran after mortar rounds landed inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. The Iranian Foreign Ministry called the White House allegations “provocative and irresponsible.”

Gerry Shih has been the Washington Post China correspondent since 2018. Before joining The Post, he was a correspondent for The Associated Press in Beijing.

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