Iran announced Tuesday that it has taken steps to increase its capacity for uranium enrichment in a warning of the potential consequences of the U.S. withdrawal last month from the nuclear deal.
Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said his government had notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its plans to build a new facility for producing next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium. At high enough levels of processing, enriched uranium is a component of a nuclear bomb.
Salehi stressed that Iran’s plans do not violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the 2015 nuclear accord is called. Under the agreement, the country is allowed to build centrifuge parts but cannot put them into operation for a decade. Salehi said new centrifuges will be assembled if the JCPOA collapses.
“If conditions allow, maybe tomorrow night at [the Natanz enrichment plant], we can announce the opening of the center for production of new centrifuges,” Salehi was quoted saying by the Fars news agency.
Iran has denied that it seeks to acquire nuclear weapons and says its programs are directed toward energy production and medical uses.
The modest planning steps Salehi announced do not immediately violate the landmark nuclear deal but would if new centrifuges were assembled and put into operation. But the decision sends a strong signal of Iran’s intentions if the deal falls apart under U.S. pressure, and it complicates the task for Europeans trying to salvage the agreement after the U.S. pullout.
The announcement came one day after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered preparations for increasing uranium enrichment if the nuclear agreement disintegrates. He also vowed not to accept limits on Iran’s ballistic missile testing.
The countries that negotiated the deal along with the United States — Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany — have all said they will stay in the deal. The Europeans have been trying to find a way to keep it alive, even though some international companies that moved to do business in Iran are talking of reducing their presence there.
Supporters and critics of the deal said they were not surprised by Iran’s move.
“This is what defenders of the JCPOA warned the administration about,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
“For now, Iran will continue to stay within the JCPOA limitations while it assesses whether the Europeans, Chinese, Russians and India can and will sustain trade and investment to make it worthwhile from Iran’s subjective perspective. How much time we have, I don’t know. That’s what worries me. I don’t think we’ve got a lot.”
Mark Dubowitz, the head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a prominent critic of the agreement, said Iran’s announced plans will not rescue the agreement as more companies shun the country for fear of running afoul of renewed U.S. sanctions.
“The supreme leader’s threat to step up enrichment is an attempt to use nuclear blackmail to force Europe to save his regime from an economic and political crisis of his own making,” Dubowitz said. “It will fail as more European companies exit Iran as the administration surrounds the country with an economic minefield.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in France for meetings with President Emmanuel Macron, said Iran is intent on destroying Israel.
“We are not surprised,” he said. “We will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.”
Macron warned against the danger of “escalation” that would lead to conflict.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert declined to respond to Tehran’s seeming threat to start enriching more uranium.
“If the IAEA believes that that is taking place, we believe that the IAEA will report that back to its board of governors, and also, to the United Nations, so we’ll just await that, if that has, in fact, ended up happening in Iran,” she said.
Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spelled out 12 conditions the United States expects Iran to meet if it wants U.S. sanctions lifted. Chief among them is the demand Iran that stop its uranium enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing to foreclose any possible path to building a nuclear weapon.