Iran begins uranium enrichment beyond limit set by 2015 nuclear deal in latest violation

William Cummings

Iran announced Sunday that it was moving forward with its threats to increase its uranium enrichment beyond the levels set by a 2015 multilateral agreement in its latest violation of the deal aimed at stopping the regime from developing nuclear weapons. 

On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would "take the next step" and increase its enrichment of uranium, vowing to raise it to "any amount that we want" beginning Sunday unless European nations in the agreement were able to offset U.S. sanctions. And earlier last week, Iran exceeded a limit on how much nuclear fuel it can possess under the agreement. 

"Be careful with the threats, Iran," Trump tweeted in response to Rouhani's statement. "They can come back to bite you like nobody has been bitten before!" 

"Iran’s latest expansion of its nuclear program will lead to further isolation and sanctions," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday. "Nations should restore the longstanding standard of no enrichment for Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s regime, armed with nuclear weapons, would pose an even greater danger to the world." 

Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have grown in recent weeks as Trump threatened to respond with "overwhelming force" if Iran attacked any U.S. personnel or assets. Last month, the president considered military strikes in retaliation against Iran for the downing of an unmanned U.S. drone. But he said he decided against it when he learned as many as 150 Iranians could be killed in the strikes, which he said would not have been "proportionate" to the loss of a drone. 

A year ago, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which had been negotiated by the Obama administration. Since then the Trump administration has increased sanctions on the regime. In response, Iran has warned the European powers still in the deal that it too would begin to back out of the accord. 

Iran had agreed to cap its uranium enrichment at 3.67%, which is sufficient to run nuclear power plants but far below the 90% level at which it is considered weapons-grade. At a news conference Sunday, Iran nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said the increased uranium enrichment would begin "within hours" but did not specify the level Iran planned to reach. 

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Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke of a 5% enrichment level in a video Saturday. 

"We predict that the IAEA measurements early tomorrow morning will show that we have gone beyond 3.67%," Kamalvandi said, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog that closely monitors Iran's uranium enrichment. 

Kamalvandi said Iran will continue to adhere to the type and number of centrifuges permitted under the nuclear agreement and will not build new, faster ones, although Iran has the technical ability to do so. 

"We will give another 60-day period, and then we will resume the reduction of our commitments," deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said Sunday, without specifying what further actions Iran planned to take. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter to his European Union counterpart, Federica Mogherini, outlining the steps it had taken ahead of ministerial-level negotiations with European powers later this month, Araghchi said. 

Zarif said in a pair of tweets Sunday that all of the steps Iran has taken away from the nuclear deal "are reversible," but only if European nations comply with the deal and "counter U.S unilateralism." 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on European nations to implement "snap-back sanctions" on Iran in response to the violation. 

"The enrichment of uranium is made for one reason and one reason only: It’s for the creation of atomic bombs," Netanyahu said in a Cabinet meeting Sunday. 

A spokesman for the United Kingdom's foreign office said in a statement Sunday that  "the U.K. remains fully committed to the deal" but called on Iran to "immediately stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its obligations." 

"We are coordinating with other JCPOA participants regarding the next steps under the terms of the deal, including a Joint Commission," the U.K. foreign office said. 

In an interview on "Fox News Sunday," 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., faulted Trump for pulling out of the nuclear deal, which he says would have at least delayed Iran's nuclear capability.

"Now they're enriching again," Bennet said. 

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY; The Associated Press 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iran begins uranium enrichment beyond limit set by 2015 nuclear deal in latest violation