Iran breaches uranium enrichment limit set under 2015 pact

Iran said it would pursue nuclear talks with European nations in the coming days, while ratcheting up pressure on its partners to salvage the landmark 2015 deal by announcing it had abandoned restrictions on uranium enrichment.

Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said his country hasn’t closed the diplomatic pathway with Europe, and that the US could join talks if it removes the crushing sanctions it has imposed since quitting the accord a year ago. Those penalties provoked Tehran to scale back compliance, fueling concerns that the region was sliding toward war.

"On the condition that sanctions are removed, there is no barrier to the presence of the Americans in the negotiations," Araghchi said in Tehran on Sunday. "The fact that the Europeans haven’t yet managed to meet our demands doesn’t mean that diplomatic consultations have been closed."

Iran threatened 60 days ago to abandon some of its commitments under the deal if Europe didn’t meet a July 7 deadline to relieve sanctions that include penalties for buying Iranian oil, the country’s economic lifeline. A week ago, Tehran exceeded the cap on its stockpile of low-grade uranium, and on Sunday, it said it will resume purifying uranium beyond the 3.67% allowed under the agreement, without saying to what level.

Iran reserves the right "to protect our interests in the face of US #EconomicTerrorism," the country’s lead negotiator in the nuclear talks, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter.

Uranium must be enriched to 90% to build weapons, though lower levels would be considered significant. The International Atomic Energy Agency said its inspectors in Iran will report to headquarters as soon as they verify the development.

60-day intervals

Iran also said it would reduce its commitments under the accord every 60 days unless other parties help shield it from the brunt of the sanctions.

France, Germany and the UK have delivered a financial channel known as Instex that aims to protect some trade with Iran - most likely food and medicine - from the threat of US penalties. But Iran wants a trade vehicle that can be used to buy oil.

European leaders have signaled they won’t rush to slap penalties on Iran, but they’ll find it increasingly hard to resist pressure from the Trump administration if Tehran abandons multiple commitments. On Saturday night, France and Iran agreed to work to resume nuclear talks by mid-July, presenting a potential diplomatic opening.

Iran’s outreach on Sunday "really shows that the Islamic Republic is still interested in ensuring that the JCPOA continues and that dialogue continues," said Saeed Leylaz, an economist and former adviser to ex-President Mohamma Khatami, using an acronym for the accord.

No reopening

Araghchi clarified that the deal can’t be reopened for negotiation, as the U.S. desires in order to address elements such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Palestinian Hamas and other proxies involved in conflicts across the Middle East. In the meantime, Tehran is in talks with nations including Turkey, China and Russia to find ways to skirt the American penalties, he said.

Some of the recent American sanctions have deliberately blocked Iran from fully complying with the terms of the nuclear deal and end uranium enrichment altogether. In May, the US ended waivers allowing Iran to export excess levels of heavy water and exchange extra amounts of enriched uranium for raw uranium or yellow cake - actions required of Iran by the terms of the accord.

European diplomats at the United Nations are worried the US will try to invoke a key provision in the Security Council resolution enshrining the nuclear deal that allows penalties against any party violating the accord. But that would trigger legal wrangling with countries like Russia, which would argue the US lost the right to use the so-called “snapback” provision when it exited the deal.

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