‘Step in the wrong direction’: US fumes as Iran expands uranium enrichment beyond nuclear deal limits

Washington is up in arms over Tehran’s decision to further scale back its commitments under the same nuclear deal that the US singlehandedly demolished last year, accusing Iran of “extorting” the international community.

The US State Department came out swinging after Iran’s atomic energy authority confirmed it would begin enriching uranium at a five-percent level at its Fordow plant starting on Wednesday, continuing past the 3.67-percent cap set out by the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Resuming uranium enrichment at this previously clandestine site is only the latest Iranian attempt to extort the international community.” 

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The stepped-up enrichment activity – which would see uranium gas injected into Fordow’s centrifuges – is part of an Iranian countermeasure to Washington’s abrogation of the nuclear accord last year. As with other steps it has taken away from the deal, Tehran insists Wednesday’s move is reversible, saying the ball is now in Europe’s court to resist a raft of crippling secondary sanctions imposed by Washington.

In line with its typically hawkish Iran policy, the State Department argues that Tehran is squarely to blame for the near-demise of the deal, although it was the US withdrawal and subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign that prompted Iranian retaliation.

“We have made clear that Iran’s expansion of uranium enrichment activities in defiance of key nuclear commitments is a big step in the wrong direction, and underscores the continuing challenge Iran poses to international peace and security,” the State Department spokesman said on Tuesday.

The spokesman also cast doubt on Iran’s assurance that its countermeasures are reversible.

“The knowledge Iran could gain over time from R&D work on new centrifuge designs represents irreversible learning that could ultimately shorten Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon if it decided to pursue one,” he said.

While Washington’s unilateral bulldozing of the accord is the primary reason why Iran is now violating its terms, the State Department spokesman used the occasion to heap scorn on the agreement itself, calling it a “flawed deal.”

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Even after the US quit the JCPOA in May 2018, Iran remained compliant with the accord for some time, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) affirmed repeatedly. Tehran initially hoped that European signatories would compensate for the economic losses incurred by the US withdrawal – after which Washington imposed several rounds of debilitating economic sanctions – but a European rescue operation was not forthcoming.

Although European countries denounced the US pullout, they have been slow in offsetting the damage inflicted in its wake, drawing increasing frustration from Tehran. Eventually, Iran’s patience simply ran out and it began reversing its commitments under the deal.

While Iran blames Europe for not doing enough to salvage the JCPOA or fight the US sanctions, there has been some progress on that front. Eight European countries have already joined INSTEX, a financial mechanism set up by France, Germany and the UK to circumvent the US penalties and restore trade with Iran. 

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