US tightens restrictions on Iran's nuclear programme

In further pressure on Tehran, US revokes waivers on uranium enrichment, as Rouhani urges unity in 'war on hope'.

    The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna [File: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters]
    The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna [File: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters]

    The United States has tightened restrictions on Iran's nuclear programme by revoking two key sanctions waivers in a bid to force Tehran to stop producing low-enriched uranium and expanding its only nuclear power plant. 

    The two waivers - one that allowed Iran to store excess heavy water produced in the uranium enrichment process in Oman, and another that allowed Iran to swap enriched uranium for mined uranium "yellowcake" with Russia - were not renewed, the State Department said on Friday.

    However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extended five sanctions waivers that allow Russia and European nations to conduct civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran. 

    The waivers permit work at several Iranian nuclear sites to continue without US penalties. Under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Russia and several European countries help maintain the facilities and are engaged in converting equipment there for exclusively civilian use. 

    But the exemptions, which were due to expire on Saturday, were extended for 90 days, shorter than the 180 days that had been granted in the past. 

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    The moves come nearly a year after President Donald Trump exited the landmark nuclear agreement between major powers and Iran, and reimposed crippling sanctions against the country. 

    Friday's US move was the third punitive action Washington has taken against Iran in as many weeks.

    Last week, the Trump administration said it would stop waivers that allowed eight countries, including China, India, Japan, Turkey and South Korea, to continue importing Iranian oil.

    It also blacklisted Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

    Uranium enrichment

    Announcing the sanctions on Iran's export of enriched uranium, Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for the US Department of State said the move was aimed at "denying Iran any pathway to a nuclear weapon". 

    Highly enriched uranium can be used to fuel a nuclear weapon, while low-enriched uranium is used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants.

    Iran has repeatedly rejected the US moves to end its production of low-enriched uranium, saying it uses the material to help produce electricity. 

    The objective of the 2015 nuclear deal was to prevent Iran working to develop nuclear weapons technology, and UN inspectors have certified that Tehran has struck by the terms of the deal.

    Responding to the US's moves, Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran's parliament, said Tehran will continue with low-level uranium enrichment. 

    "Under the deal, we have not done anything wrong. We continue enriching," he was quoted as saying by state television. 

    A senior parliamentarian called for talks with Iran's partners in the nuclear deal and the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure Iran could continue to enrich uranium, ISNA reported.

    "With new sanctions, America wants to slow Iran's nuclear industry, so new talks should be held with nuclear deal members and the IAEA to approve that Iran can enrich fuel to 20 percent and higher," Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of parliament's national security committee, was quoted as saying by ISNA.

    'War on hope'

    Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for the country to "resist and unite" against US pressure in what he called a "war on hope" waged against the Islamic Republic.

    "America will only let go of this game when it realises it cannot achieve anything. We have no way but to resist and unite," Rouhani said in a televised speech on Saturday.

    "Our war today is the war on hope. They want to break our hope, and we have to break their hope."

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    Rouhani also vowed that Iran will continue to supply oil to its major customers despite the US threat of sanctions. 

    "They want to cut our foreign currency supply ... they seek to sow discord in the country. They want us to be divided, to stand against each other," he added.

    The waivers on Iranian crude also expired on Friday, although it was not immediately clear whether the Trump administration would impose sanctions on some or all of those countries if they take delivery of previously purchased oil.

    Iran's economy has been battered since the US reimposed sanctions in November last year. Inflation has shot up, its currency has plummeted and imports are now vastly more expensive.

    "The centre of what is happening right now is oil," said Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University. 

    "The American administration basically wants to block Iran from exporting even one millimetre of its oil. The sanctions mean Iran will lose its main source of revenue and hence, more pressure on the country's budget," he told Al Jazeera. 

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies