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Iran now operating advanced centrifuges in breach of nuclear pact 

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, speaks at a news briefing in Tehran on Saturday. Advanced centrifuges are displayed in front of him. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/AP)

ISTANBUL — Iran has activated a chain of advanced centrifuges to speed up uranium enrichment in defiance of a 2015 nuclear accord, a senior Iranian official said Saturday, raising the stakes for European powers struggling to prevent the deal’s collapse.

The spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Behrouz Kamalvandi, announced the new measures at a news conference in Tehran, warning that there was little time left to salvage the deal. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said this week that Iran would set aside the accord’s restrictions on nuclear-related research and development and would expand its use of advanced centrifuges.

“These steps are reversible if the other side fulfills its promises,” Kamalvandi said, urging European nations to compensate Tehran following a U.S. withdrawal from the pact last year. 

“We cannot remain in the deal unilaterally,” he said. 

The landmark agreement was signed by Iran and world powers in 2015 and curbed Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for major sanctions relief. President Trump abandoned the accord and reimposed a near-total embargo on Iran’s economy in the fall, frustrating European allies who helped negotiate the deal.

Under the agreement, Iran is allowed limited research and development on advanced centrifuges, which accelerate the production of fissile material that can be used to make a nuclear bomb. Kamalvandi said Saturday that Iran had begun injecting uranium gas into the centrifuges, which helps quicken the process. He said that the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, had been informed of the recent moves.

But Iran in the past has kept its enrichment levels well below the threshold for a nuclear device.

Before the nuclear deal, Iran was producing material at about 3.5 percent enrichment for its electricity-producing reactor and at a higher level for a research reactor — but still under the more than 90 percent enrichment needed for a warhead.

Iran has already exceeded caps placed on the size and purity of its enriched uranium stockpile, part of a strategy to place increasing pressure on Europe to reset the terms of the deal. Iranian officials say they will reduce their commitments under the agreement every 60 days until Europe negotiates improved economic terms and offsets the effects of the U.S. sanctions.

In recent weeks, France has floated an initiative to grant Iran a $15 billion line of credit to make up for lost oil sales. As part of the agreement, Iran would return to full compliance with the nuclear deal.

But the Trump administration, which has embarked on a “maximum pressure campaign” to isolate Iran, appears unlikely to greenlight the financial package. The United States has worked aggressively to halt Iran’s oil exports, including issuing a warrant for an Iranian supertanker detained by Gibraltar in July.

President Trump says that sweeping sanctions have fundamentally changed Iran’s behavior. But have they? (Video: The Washington Post)

The administration said that the vessel, Adrian Darya 1, was transporting oil to Syria and was therefore in violation of U.S. sanctions and subject to seizure. 

Gibraltar released the tanker last month and it has been sailing through the Mediterranean Sea. Earlier this week, it turned off its transponder, according to open source shipping data. 

Commercial satellite images Friday appeared to show the vessel anchored near the Syrian port city of Tartus. 

“Anyone who said the Adrian Darya-1 wasn’t headed to #Syria is in denial,” U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said on Twitter Friday, along with an image he said showed the tanker along Syria’s coast. The image was taken by DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based satellite imagery firm.

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