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Have capacity to raise uranium enrichment beyond 20%: Iranian nuclear agency

File photo. Photograph:( Reuters )

AFP Dubai, Iran Sep 07, 2019, 02.21 PM (IST)

Iran said on Saturday it was now capable of raising uranium enrichment past the 20% level and, while it had no immediate plans to do, so the clock was ticking towards the point where a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers could not be salvaged.

"We have started lifting limitations on our Research and Development imposed by the deal...It will include the development of more rapid and advanced centrifuges," Iranian nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi told a televised news conference.

"The European parties to the deal should know that there is not much time left, and if there is some action to be taken (to salvage the nuclear deal), it should be done quickly."

The 2015 pact curbed Iran's disputed nuclear programme in exchange for relief from sanctions but has unravelled since the United States pulled out of it last year and acted to strangle Iran's oil trade to push it into wider security concessions.

Since May, Iran has begun to scale back its commitments to the pact in retaliation for US President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign since he exited the deal and reimposed sanctions to force Tehran back into negotiations.

Iran says its measures are reversible if the European side find a way to protect its vital oil exports from Washington's sanctions.

The deal capped the number of centrifuge enrichment machines installed in Iran at roughly 6,000, down from around 19,000 before 2015. It allows Iran to refine uranium only with first-generation IR-1 centrifuges and to use small numbers of more advanced centrifuges solely for research, but without stockpiling enriched uranium, for a period of 10 years.

Cranking up advanced centrifuges

"Machines developed by our own research and development will help accumulate reserves. This was done yesterday and announced to the IAEA today," Kamalvandi said, referring to the UN nuclear watchdog which is monitoring compliance with the deal.

"This includes IR-6 machines which have now been fed (uranium) gas. A chain of 20 IR-4 centrifuges has also been started. The IR-6 has also started as a chain of 20 since yesterday," he said. "We will soon test our IR-8 centrifuge cascade by injecting gas into 3 IR-8 machines."

Advanced centrifuges can enrich at a much faster pace.

The accord also capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for centrifuges, at 3.67 per cent, which is suitable for civilian power generation and far below the 90 thresholds of nuclear weapons-grade.

The 20 per cent level represents a significant leap towards bomb material, though Iran has argued that it could be put to running its Bushehr nuclear power reactor.

"The UN nuclear watchdog has been informed about our new nuclear steps and it still has access to our nuclear sites," Kamalvandi said.

France, Germany and Britain have struggled to save the deal by setting up a barter trade mechanism with Iran but it has yet to get off the ground and Tehran on Wednesday set a 60-day deadline for the Europeans. "We do not currently intend to make any changes to IAEA inspections and our transparency obligations are being met as before," Kamalvandi said.

"(But) when the other sides do not carry out their commitments, they should not expect Iran to fulfil its commitments" to limit nuclear capacity set by the deal.

Story highlights

The 2015 pact curbed Iran's disputed nuclear programme in exchange for relief from sanctions but has unravelled since the United States pulled out of it last year and acted to strangle Iran's oil trade to push it into wider security concessions.