(Bloomberg) -- Iran could surpass enriched-uranium limits set under its nuclear deal with world powers within weeks, a development expected to exacerbate tensions with the U.S.
“If we were proceeding at the previous speed, it would have taken several months,” said Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, in an interview with Tehran’s Vatan Emrooz newspaper. “With the changes introduced, we will reach that ceiling in coming weeks.”
The 2015 deal cut Iran’s low-enriched uranium by some 97% and capped its stockpile at 300 kilograms (661 pounds). Iran has remained well below that inventory limit for more than a year and had just 203 kilograms on hand during the first quarter, according to monitoring data.
Iran announced this month it would scale back some of its commitments under the agreement after the U.S. -- which ditched the accord last year and reimposed sanctions -- revoked measures that allowed the Gulf country to remain within limits by shipping nuclear material overseas.
The timing of any violation of limits on heavy water and enriched uranium is “largely within Iran’s control,” but from a technical standpoint could happen “within the next month,” the Arms Control Association said in a report.
The IAEA reported that Iran’s stockpile of heavy water was 124.8 metric tons as of mid-February. By its next report expected late May, it may have produced an additional estimated 5 metric tons, bringing the nation close to the 130 metric ton limit, the Washington-based research group said.
Iran’s decision came in the midst of heightened tensions with the U.S., which has hastened the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf, dispatched bomber jets and withdrew some diplomatic personnel from Iraq. American officials said unspecified Iranian threats prompted those actions.
China, Europe and Russia continue to back the accord, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and are collaborating with Iran to work around U.S. sanctions and facilitate trade. If Iran were to breach aspects of the deal, it could make it harder for those governments to stand up to American efforts to isolate the nation with the world’s second-biggest natural gas reserves.
Iran warned on May 8 that the nuclear showdown could escalate even further. It threatened to abandon limits on the purity of enriched uranium unless Europe throws it an economic lifeline within 60 days, setting an ultimatum for the survival of the agreement.
Iran’s current steps may result in a technical breach of the Iran deal though they “do not represent a near-term proliferation threat,” according to the Arms Control Association. The actions it has threatened to take, including enriching uranium at higher purity levels, “pose a more serious proliferation risk” as it would shorten the time needed to accumulate enough nuclear material for a weapon, it said.
Iran says its nuclear program is civilian and it does not seek to build atomic weapons.
(Updates with analysis in fifth, sixth paragraphs and penultimate.)
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