Iran nuclear deal: Enriched uranium limit breached, IAEA confirms

File photo showing the reactor building at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran (26 October 2010) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant can use low-enriched uranium as fuel

Iran has breached the limit on its stockpile of enriched uranium set under a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, the global watchdog has confirmed.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said its inspectors had verified the 300kg (660lb) cap had been exceeded.

Iran stepped up production of enriched uranium, which is used to make reactor fuel and potentially nuclear weapons, in response to reinstated US sanctions.

European nations have warned that any violation will bring consequences.

The deal allows for the re-imposition of multilateral sanctions that were lifted in return for Iran limiting its nuclear activities.

What has Iran said?

“Based on what I have been told, Iran has exceeded the 300kg limit in accordance with its plan,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted by Isna news agency as telling reporters in Tehran on Monday afternoon.

“We have clearly said what we will do and we will act accordingly. We deem it as part of our rights under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” he added, referring to the official name of the nuclear deal.

An IAEA spokesperson later told the BBC: “We can confirm that IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has informed the Board of Governors that the agency verified on 1 July that Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile exceeded 300kg of UF6 [uranium hexafluoride] enriched up to 3.67% U-235 (or the equivalent in different chemical forms).”

The Iranian foreign ministry’s spokesman meanwhile warned that Iran still planned to suspend other commitments under the deal in 10 days unless European powers took “practical and tangible steps” to implement their new mechanism for facilitating trade and shield the Iranian economy from the effects of the US sanctions.

The mechanism, known as Instex, essentially allows goods to be bartered between Iranian and foreign companies without direct financial transactions. It became operational on Saturday, but Mr Zarif said it did not meet Iran’s needs.

The development comes at a time of high tension in the Middle East, with Iran shooting down a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz in disputed circumstances, and the US accusing Iran of being behind two sets of attacks on oil tankers.

Iran is seeking to breach the nuclear agreement’s terms in a step-by-step fashion to bring pressure on the Europeans to help it to resist the crushing pressure of US economic sanctions. But few experts believe the Europeans will be able to do this.

Iran’s move will prompt a crescendo of protest from its more strident critics. (Others may be more circumspect waiting for the IAEA to verify the breach.)

Most important is what Iran does next. It has threatened to increase its level of uranium enrichment to up to 20% from Sunday. This would enable it to get some 90% of the way towards having material suitable for a bomb. And that really will set diplomatic alarm bells ringing.

What is enriched uranium?

Enriched uranium is produced by feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges to separate out the most suitable isotope for nuclear fission, called U-235.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Prior to enrichment, uranium ore concentrate must be converted into uranium hexafluoride

Under the nuclear deal, Iran is only permitted to produce low-enriched uranium, which has a 3-4% concentration of U-235, and can be used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants.

Weapons-grade uranium is 90% enriched or more.

The deal also restricted Iran to stockpiling no more than 300kg (660lbs) of the low-enriched uranium.

A stockpile of 1,050kg, however, could be further enriched later into enough material to build one bomb, according to the Arms Control Association.

Iran strongly denies any intention to build nuclear weapons.

Why has Iran breached the stockpile limit?

The Iranian economy has slumped since the US withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and began reinstating sanctions targeting its oil and banking sectors.

Mr Trump said the deal was flawed and that he wanted to force Iran’s government to renegotiate the terms – something it refused to do.

In May, after the US ended exemptions from penalties for countries still importing Iranian oil – and those exchanging surplus Iranian low-enriched uranium for ore concentrate – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that it would no longer comply with the 300kg enriched uranium cap.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says world powers have failed to abide by their commitments

Mr Rouhani also gave the five countries still party to the deal – the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia – until 7 July to meet their commitment to shield Iran from the sanctions’ effects.

If they failed, he said, Iran might start enriching uranium beyond 3.67% concentration, and also halt the redesign of a heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak.

Why does this matter?

The nuclear deal is likely to collapse if Iran is found to be in “material breach” as a result of it violating the stockpile limit or other restrictions on uranium enrichment.

After 30 days, any of the other parties would be able to “snap back” the UN sanctions lifted under Security Council resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal. Such a step cannot be vetoed.

Iran’s threat to enrich uranium beyond 3.67% is also a major concern from a proliferation standpoint.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful, but experts say 20% enriched uranium is most of the way to weapons-grade uranium. That is because going from uranium’s natural state of 0.7% concentration of U-235 to 20% takes approximately 90% of the total effort required to get to weapons-grade.

The Arak reactor is also a proliferation risk because if it is not redesigned it will produce spent fuel containing plutonium, which could be used for a nuclear bomb.


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