European payment system nearly operational in key development to salvage Iran nuclear pact with world powers.
Iran has followed through on a threat to accelerate its production of enriched uranium, the head of the UN’s atomic watchdog said on Monday, departing from his usual guarded language to say he was worried about increasing tension.
The assessment comes at a time of sharply increased US-Iranian confrontation, a year after Washington abandoned an international agreement that imposed curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of financial sanctions.
Washington tightened sanctions on Iran from the start of May, ordering all countries and companies to halt any imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system. It also dispatched extra troops to the region to counter unspecified threats from Iran.
Iran responded with a threat to increase its enrichment of uranium, saying it was up to European countries who still support the nuclear deal to save it by finding ways to ensure Tehran receives the economic benefits it was promised.
IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, whose agency is responsible for monitoring Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, said Iran was now producing more enriched uranium than before, but it was not clear when it might reach the stockpile limit of 300 kg set in the pact.
“Yes, [the] production rate is increasing,” he told a news conference on Monday when asked if enriched uranium production had accelerated since the agency’s last quarterly report, which found Iran compliant with the nuclear deal as of May 20.
He declined to quantify the increase.
“I am worried about increasing tensions over the Iranian nuclear issue,” he said, adding he hoped “that ways can be found to reduce current tensions through dialogue. It is essential that Iran fully implements its nuclear-related commitments”.
Iran said last month it was still abiding by the deal but would quadruple its production of enriched uranium – a move that could take it out of compliance if stockpiles rise too far.
They have promised to help Iran find other ways to trade, although with no success so far. All major European companies that had announced plans to invest in Iran have since called them off for fear of US punishment.
Germany, France and Britain have since set up a special-purpose trade vehicle called INSTEX, designed to allow payments to Iran that would legally bypass sanctions. It is yet to be launched.
During a visit to Tehran on Monday, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the European signatories to the nuclear pact were doing their “utmost to prevent the failure of the deal”.
“The situation in the region here is highly explosive and extremely serious,” Maas told a news conference alongside Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
“A dangerous escalation of existing tensions can also lead to a military escalation.”
INSTEX was a new instrument and not straightforward to put into effect, Maas told reporters, adding: “But all the formal requirements are in place now, and so I’m assuming we’ll be ready to use it in the foreseeable future.”
Zarif said Iran would cooperate with the EU to save the deal.
“Reducing tension is only possible through stopping the economic war by America,” he said. “Those who wage such wars cannot expect to remain safe.”
In his meeting with Maas, President Hassan Rouhani blamed the US for the soaring tensions and called on the European signatories of the deal to “resist the economic war on Iran imposed by America”.
“This war … will never be beneficial for any country and the Iranian people will resist these pressures and bullying behaviours,” Iran’s state TV quoted Rouhani as saying.
The European partners had not done enough to provide Iran with alternative ways to trade, he said.
“We have not seen any serious measures taken by the Europeans in the past year despite their fairly good political stance,” Rouhani said.
In Washington, Department of State spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the IAEA findings showed “that Iran is going in the wrong direction and it underscores the continuing challenge Iran poses to international peace and security”.
She added the US would not support any payment mechanism that allowed countries or businesses to conduct transactions with sanctioned Iranian entities.
Washington says the nuclear deal should be expanded to cover other issues including Iran’s missile programme and its role in wars in the region.
European countries argue that while they share those concerns, it would be harder to address them without the nuclear deal in place.
Iran has ruled out any negotiation over its ballistic missile programme and its activities in the Middle East, where Tehran has been involved in proxy wars with Saudi Arabia for decades.