DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran said on Monday it had launched a new batch of advanced centrifuges to accelerate uranium enrichment, further reducing compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal following the withdrawal of its arch-foe the United States.
Iran has gradually shed commitments made under the deal with world powers since being hit with renewed U.S. sanctions that have crippled its oil exports. Germany said on Monday Iran’s announced roll-out of modernised centrifuges jeopardises the accord and called on Tehran to return to it.
Under the 2015 deal, the Islamic Republic is only allowed to enrich uranium with just over 5,000 of its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, widely seen as antiquated and breakdown-prone. The new IR-6 machines can refine uranium 10 times faster, said Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
“Today, we are witnessing the launch of the cascade (operating set) of 30 IR-6 centrifuges,” Salehi told state television. “Iran now is operating 60 IR-6 advanced centrifuges. It shows our capacity and determination.
“Our scientists are working on a prototype called the IR-9 that works 50 times faster than the IR-1s.”
The nuclear deal, under which international sanctions against Iran were lifted, was tailored to extend the time Iran would need to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb - sometimes referred to as the “breakout time” - to about a year from 2-3 months.
Tehran denies ever having aimed to develop a nuclear bomb, saying enrichment is only to generate energy for civilian uses.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog said in September that Iran had informed the agency about making modifications to accommodate cascades - or interconnected clusters - of 164 of the IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuge. Cascades of the same size and type were scrapped under the nuclear agreement.
Iran “has no credible reason” to expand its enrichment programme, a senior U.S. administration official said on Monday in a call with reporters. “And what they’ve announced is a big step in the wrong direction.”
Iran’s announcement came on the 40th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran at the start of its Islamic Revolution. Thousands of Iranians chanted “Death to America” near the old embassy with the army chief likening Washington to a scorpion bent on harming Iran.
A brief thaw in decades of antagonism between Tehran and Washington brought about by the 2015 deal ended last year when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord, under which Iran had agreed to rein in its disputed enrichment programme in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
Trump said the accord was flawed in Iran’s favour and wants it renegotiated. Washington has since renewed and intensified its sanctions, slashing Iran’s economically vital crude oil sales by more than 80%.
The Trump administration on Monday slapped fresh sanctions on nine people with ties to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, including his chief of staff, one of his sons and the head of Iran’s judiciary. The U.S. Treasury Department said those targeted help Khamenei “implement his destabilizing policies”.
Responding to Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran has bypassed the restrictions of the deal step-by-step - including by breaching both its cap on stockpiled enriched uranium and on the level of enrichment.
However, Iran remains far short of the enrichment level - 90 percent - seen as necessary to produce bomb-grade uranium.
Tehran has rejected the Trump administration’s demand that a a new deal imposing stricter limits on its nuclear capacity as well as curbs on its ballistic missile programme and on its regional behaviour.
Tehran, however, has left room for diplomacy by saying that talks are possible if Washington lifts all the sanctions and itself returns to the nuclear deal.
“If they (Washington) return to their commitments, we also will go back to our commitments,” Salehi said, adding that “Iran is ready to fully implement the deal if its rights are respected”.
Iran has warned it might take further steps away from the deal this month if European powers who remain committed to the pact fail to shield its economy from U.S. penalties.
While steps taken by Iran so far do not make a big difference to the nuclear “breakout” time for now, they further complicate the chances of saving the accord by the European signatories, who have criticised Trump for exiting it.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich