Iran announced on Monday that it would soon exceed the limits on the nuclear fuel it is permitted to possess under the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, which the United States withdrew from last year, leaving the door open to an “unlimited rise” in Tehran’s stockpile of enriched uranium and potentially triggering another flash point with Washington.
The announcement by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization was the country’s latest signal that it will abandon the pact unless other signatories help Iran circumvent punishing United States economic sanctions imposed by President Trump. The threat seemed aimed primarily at the European signatories, to persuade them to break with Washington and swiftly restore some of the economic benefits of the deal to Tehran.
During a news conference announcing the decision, Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the organization, said that Iran might also increase the level of uranium enrichment up to 20 percent for use in its reactors, the Iranian state-run news outlet Press TV reported.
The nuclear agreement limits the level of enrichment to 3.67 percent, but if Iran began producing 20 percent enriched uranium, it would put the country much closer to weapons-grade levels.
Tensions between the United States and Iran have steadily increased since Mr. Trump withdrew the United States in May 2018 from the nuclear agreement that had been forged by the Obama administration, even though international energy experts said Iran was abiding by the deal.
While there was no response to the Iranian announcement early Monday in Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said on Sunday that the United States might further tighten sanctions on Iran in response to any moves to ramp up its nuclear program.
“We know that their nuclear program accelerates if they have more money and wealth, if they have more capacity, more resources, they have access to metals and to materials and to fissile material,” he said on “Face the Nation” on CBS.
Mr. Pompeo also said that the United States was considering “a full range of options” in responding to what the White House has said were Iranian attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Those measures include but are not limited to military strikes, he said.
Mr. Pompeo said he was making calls over the weekend to foreign officials to talk about the options. The United States has considered getting international support to create a naval force that would provide security for oil shipments in the region, similar to the antipiracy coalition assembled in the Arabian Sea in recent years.
“China gets over 80 percent of its crude oil transiting through the Strait of Hormuz,” Mr. Pompeo said. “South Korea, Japan, these nations are incredibly dependent on these resources. We’re prepared to do our part.”
China was an important contributor to the antipiracy venture, but may not be willing to join a United States-led effort to protect shipping. Beijing has opposed Mr. Trump’s Iran policies, has said it intends to continue buying oil from Iran despite American sanctions and is locked in a trade war with the Trump administration.
Mr. Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization, said that Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile would surpass a limit set in the agreement within the next 10 days, the semiofficial news agency Tasnim reported. Low-enriched uranium can be used in a nuclear reactor, but not in an atomic bomb.
The escalation comes as tensions between the United States and Iran continue to ratchet up, with the most recent confrontation coming over explosions on two tankers last week in the Strait of Hormuz.
President Trump called the incident a deliberate attack by Iran, and the United States released a video that it said showed an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps patrol boat pulling up alongside one of the stricken ships after the initial explosion and removing an unexploded limpet mine.
Iran called those accusations “warmongering” and part of a campaign of disinformation from the Americans. European officials have said the video is inconclusive and called for calm between the two nations.
A key Democrat, Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has endorsed the conclusion that Iran attacked the tankers, but said the Trump administration’s escalating pressure campaign was backfiring.
“There’s no question that Iran is behind the attacks,” Mr. Schiff said Sunday on “Face the Nation.” “I think the evidence is very strong and compelling.”
American allies and intelligence agencies warned that “this kind of Iranian reaction was a likely result of a policy of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement,” he said, adding that the administration’s approach had “only heightened the risk of conflict.”
If Iran did stop complying with the agreement, it would put pressure on the remaining signatories, which also include Russia and China, to join the United States in reimposing economic sanctions on Iran, which is hardly what Tehran wants to happen.
On Sunday, Helga Schmid, a senior Europe Union diplomat, visited Tehran for meetings on the nuclear deal. Ms. Schmid, who helped negotiate the 2015 agreement, reiterated her support for the deal, according to Reuters, and discussed options to enable trade between the bloc and Iran.
*see full story by The New York Times