Tensions with Iran reach new stage over uranium threat

Tensions with Iran reach new stage over uranium threat
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The U.S. face-off with Iran reached a new phase Monday as Tehran’s nuclear agency announced it will exceed in 10 days the amount of low-enriched uranium it is allowed to stockpile unless Europe intervenes. 

The announcement ramps up pressure on European officials to try to save an international deal spearheaded by former President Obama that is now on life support.

The Trump administration responded to the news by blaming the Obama administration and calling for “increased international pressure” against Iran.

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“Iran’s enrichment plans are only possible because the horrible nuclear deal left ... their capabilities intact,” National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a statement. “President TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE has made it clear that he will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. The regime’s nuclear blackmail must be met with increased international pressure.”

Iran’s warning comes as U.S. tensions with the Islamic Republic mount following oil tanker attacks near the strategic chokepoint of the Straight of Hormuz. Washington has blamed the attacks on Tehran. The administration was reportedly sending an  additional 1,000 service members to the region on Monday, according to CNN.

In an unusual visit for the chief diplomat, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoClarence Thomas, Joe Manchin, Rudy Giuliani among guests at second state visit under Trump Senate Judiciary Committee requests consultation with admin on refugee admissions State Department's top arms control official leaving MORE will meet Tuesday with Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie and Special Operations Command chief Gen. Richard Clarke at their headquarters in Florida to discuss “regional security concerns and ongoing operations,” the State Department announced Monday.

The Iran nuclear deal — negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015 and co-signed by England, Germany, France, China and Russia — says Iran can stockpile no more than 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium.

The Trump administration withdrew from the deal in May 2018. This May, Iran announced it was quadrupling its uranium production capacity following the Trump administration’s decision to end waivers that allowed Iran to export excess uranium.

The decision to end the waivers effectively meant Iran had to either end its production altogether or go above the nuclear deal’s limit.

On Monday, the spokesman of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said Iran will pass the 300 kilogram limit on June 27.

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Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued Iran’s announcement is part of a strategy of “graduated escalation.”

“Iran’s highly incremental nuclear escalation is designed to instill fear among American and European policymakers about what nuclear end-state Iran is willing to attain,” he said in an email. “It’s also designed to signal that even in the face of tough sanctions, Tehran has its own ways of retaliating.”

For now, Iran is still only enriching to the 3.67 percent limit set by the deal — enough for power plants but far from weapons-grade.

But Kamalvandi said Iran will increase uranium enrichment levels “based on the country’s needs.” He said Iran needs 5 percent enrichment for its nuclear power plant in Bushehr and 20 percent enrichment for a Tehran research reactor.

Twenty percent is still under weapons-grade. But once it reaches that level, it takes much less time to enrich to 90 percent, which is considered weapons-grade.

Iran has set a July 7 deadline for Europe to ensure it still gets benefits from the deal despite U.S. sanctions before it will increase enrichment levels.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Monday there is still time for the Europeans to save the accord.

“It’s a crucial moment, and France can still work with other signatories of the deal and play a historic role to save the deal in this very short time,” Rouhani said while meeting with France’s new ambassador to Iran.

Iran’s announcement came as European foreign ministers were meeting in Brussels to discuss recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region.

The United States has blamed Iran for attacks on six oil tankers, including two in the Gulf of Oman last week. Iran has denied involvement.

To back up its claim, U.S. Central Command released video last week it said showed Iran’s Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers attacked in the Gulf of Oman.

But many U.S. allies in Europe have not joined in on blaming Iran for the attacks.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said Monday the situation in the Gulf calls for “maximum restraint,” a play on the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure.”

Foreign ministers expressed, she said, “a very strong element of concern for the risk of miscalculation or unintentional escalations that could occur in a region that is already to the limits of the stress test.”

Mogherini also said the EU was focused on ways to “keep the [nuclear] agreement in place,” including mechanisms for Iran to continue to benefit from the deal.

She stressed Europe will move forward based on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assessments.

“Our assessment on the implementation of the agreement is based on the factual, technically sound assessment and evaluation that the IAEA makes in its reports. And so far, Iran has been compliant with its nuclear commitments as we had expected it to be, as we had encouraged it to be,” she said. “So if the IAEA assessment and reports will change, we will then assess the situation further.”

Arms control advocates said Monday’s announcement was concerning but does not pose an immediate risk.

“While any violation of the deal is concerning, breaching the limit on low-enriched uranium does not pose a near-term proliferation risk,” Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, and Daryl Kimball, the association’s executive director, said in a statement.

At a 3.67 percent enrichment level in gas form, Iran would need to produce about 1,050 kilograms to have enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb, they said.

They added that Monday’s developments were “predictable” following Trump’s “systematic campaign to deny Iran any benefit” from the nuclear deal.

“While Iran’s frustration with Trump’s reckless and irresponsible pressure campaign is understandable, we strongly urge Iran to remain in compliance with the nuclear deal,” the statement said. “We also urge the Trump administration to rethink its failing Iran policy, which has put an effective nonproliferation agreement in jeopardy, increasing the risk of a new nuclear crisis and the threat of conflict in the region.”

Trump’s allies, though, are defending his Iran policy.

“We’re squeezing them very hard with sanctions that the Treasury Department has done an excellent job of pursuing,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Energy: California, 23 other states sue Trump over vehicle emissions rule | Climate strike protests hit cities across globe | Interior watchdog expands scope of FOIA investigation | Dems accuse officials of burying climate reports Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers say Zuckerberg to 'cooperate' on antitrust probes | Dems see victory after McConnell backs election security funds | Twitter takes down fake pro-Saudi accounts Liberal super PAC launches browser extension replacing 'Mitch McConnell' with 'Moscow Mitch' MORE (R-Ky.) said Monday on “Fox & Friends.” “That’s why you see them striking out with these attacks on vessels in the Persian Gulf. The sanctions are really hurting. The president made the right decision backing out of the nuclear deal, because it wasn’t much of a deal.”

McConnell added that Trump “made it clear to everybody, he’s not trying to start a war.”

But Democrats remain skeptical of the intentions of Trump’s national security adviser, John BoltonJohn BoltonDiplomacy is still the best option for dealing with Iran North Korea praises Trump for call for 'new method' in talks Trump job approval rises amid record partisan gap: Gallup MORE, who advocated for military action against Iran before joining the administration.

“They’ve pushed Iran as far as they possibly can, and Bolton has said over and over again that he wants to see an actual war with Iran,” Rep. Katie HillKatherine (Katie) Lauren HillLawmakers beat reporters in annual spelling bee competition Young insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight Polling director: Young voters swayed by health care, economy, gun control MORE (D-Calif.) said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Trump is somebody who you can’t predict from moment to moment who he’s going to listen to. To me, it seemed like he was headed toward a military conflict with Iran, and then he pulled back. But now, who knows what’s going to happen. And I think the unpredictability is exactly what we need to be concerned about.”