US warns Iran is preparing a ‘nuclear breakout’

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounces Iranian ‘extortion’ and demands world powers act on nuclear deal breaches.

The United States has accused Iran of preparing “a rapid nuclear breakout” after it began pumping uranium gas into hundreds of centrifuges, another step that violates the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the comments on Thursday, after Iran stepped up activity at its underground Fordow nuclear plant. He warned against Tehran’s “violence and terror” and urged the international community to take immediate action. 

The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) confirmed the latest nuclear programme step after 2,000kg (4,400 pounds) of uranium hexafluoride was transferred from the Natanz nuclear facility to Fordow. Iran previously announced that 1,044 centrifuges were installed at the well-protected facility.

The US – which withdrew from the nuclear accord in May 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran – called Iran’s move a “big step in the wrong direction”.

“Iran’s latest nuclear escalations reflect the regime’s intentions all along: to extort the international community into accepting its violence and terror,” said Pompeo.

“Members of the international community who are rightly concerned with Iran’s latest attacks and provocations should imagine how Iran would behave with a nuclear weapon.

“It is now time for all nations to reject this regime’s nuclear extortion and take serious steps to increase pressure. Iran’s continued and numerous nuclear provocations demand such action,” Pompeo said in a statement.

The nuclear pact bans the production of nuclear material at Fordow, a highly-sensitive site that Iran hid from UN non-proliferation inspectors until its exposure in 2009.

But with feedstock gas entering its centrifuges, the facility – built inside a mountain to withstand any air raids – moves from the permitted status of a research plant to being an active nuclear site.

“After all successful preparations … injection of uranium gas into centrifuges started on Thursday at Fordow… The whole the process has been supervised by the inspectors of the UN nuclear watchdog,” AEOI said in a statement.

Iran insists the latest move was not a violation of the nuclear deal.

Tehran has gradually scaled back its commitments to the agreement, under which it restrained its enrichment programme in exchange for the removal of most international sanctions since the US reneged on the deal last year.

Enrichment of uranium to such a low level of fissile purity would be broadly suitable for civilian electricity generation. Ninety-percent purity is required for nuclear weapon fuel.

Nothing in return

Iran’s move at Fordow will make it even harder for the deal’s other parties to prevent its ultimate collapse. The decision to inject uranium gas into centrifuges at Fordow was described by Russia as extremely alarming. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed concern about Tehran’s announcements but said European powers should do their part.

“They are demanding that Iran fulfil all [obligations] without exception, but are not giving anything in return,” he told reporters.

The Kremlin has previously called punishing sanctions against Iran “unprecedented and illegal”.

The new nuclear activity was the fourth step announced by Iran since it began responding to Washington’s abandonment of the nuclear deal.

French President Emmanuel Macron called Iran’s latest move “grave”, saying it explicitly signalled Iran’s intent for the first time to leave the deal – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“I think that for the first time, Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the JCPOA, which marks a profound shift,” said Macron, who has been at the forefront of efforts by European signatories to salvage the deal after the US withdrew.

Enrichment possibilities

The biggest obstacle to building a nuclear weapon is stockpiling enough fissile material – highly-enriched uranium or plutonium – for the core of a bomb. A central objective of the 2015 deal was to extend the time Iran would need to do that, if it chose to, to a year from about two or three months.

A spokesman for the IAEA said its inspectors at the Fordow site “will report back on relevant activities”.

The nuclear accord, signed in 2015 by Iran, the US, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia, bans nuclear activity at Fordow, a plant located near the city of Qom.

Before the deal, Iran used Fordow to enrich uranium to 20 percent fissile purity. Officials have said Tehran could again enrich uranium to 20 percent but there is no need for that right now.

US President Donald Trump‘s administration has renewed and intensified sanctions on Iran, slashing the country’s economically vital crude oil exports by more than 80 percent.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, coarchitect of the 2015 agreement, has underlined that Tehran’s breaches would be reversible if Washington scrapped sanctions and returned to it.

Responding to Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy, Iran has bypassed restrictions of the deal step-by-step – including by breaching both its cap on stockpiled enriched uranium and on the fissile level of enrichment.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies