US adds Mideast troops; Iran nears ura­nium limit

The Fresno Bee - - Front Page - BY NASSER KARIMI AND JON GAMBRELL

Iran will sur­pass the ura­ni­um­stock­pile limit set by its nu­clear deal in the next 10 days, an of­fi­cial said Mon­day, rais­ing pres­sure on Euro­peans try­ing to save the ac­cord a year af­ter the U.S. with­drawal lit the fuse for the height­ened ten­sions now be­tween Tehran and Wash­ing­ton.

Hours later, the Pen­tagon an­nounced it was send­ing about 1,000 ad­di­tional Amer­i­can troops to the Mid­dle East to bolster se­cu­rity in the re­gion in the face of what U.S. of­fi­cials said is a grow­ing threat from Iran.

The an­nounce­ment by Iran’s nu­clear agency marked yet an­other dead­line set by Tehran. Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani al­ready has warned Eu­rope that a new deal needs to be in place by July 7 or the Is­lamic Repub­lic would in­crease its en­rich­ment of ura­nium.

Atomic en­ergy spokesman Behrouz Ka­mal­vandi sug­gested that Iran’s en­rich­ment could reach up to 20%, just a step away from weapons-grade lev­els.

It ap­pears as if Iran has be­gun its own max­i­mum pres­sure cam­paign on the world af­ter fac­ing one from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion that deeply cut into its sale of crude oil abroad and sent its econ­omy into freefall. Eu­rope has so far been un­able to of­fer Iran a way around the U.S. sanc­tions.

The devel­op­ment fol­lows ap­par­ent at­tacks last week in the Strait of Hor­muz on oil tankers, as­saults that Wash­ing­ton has blamed on Iran. While Iran has de­nied be­ing in­volved, it laid mines in the 1980s tar­get­ing oil tankers around the nar­row mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of the world’s crude oil passes.

“If this con­di­tion con­tin­ues, there will be no deal” any­more, Ka­mal­vandi said. He ac­cused the Euro­peans of “killing time” as the clock runs down.

Rouhani, greet­ing France’s new am­bas­sador to Tehran on Mon­day, sim­i­larly warned that time was run­ning out on the deal.

“The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is very critical and France and the other par­ties to the (deal) still have a very lim­ited op­por­tu­nity to play their his­toric role for saving the deal,” Rouhani said, ac­cord­ing to his web­site.

The Ira­nian an­nounce­ment ap­peared timed to strike just as Euro­pean for­eign min­is­ters met in Lux­em­bourg. Fed­er­ica Mogherini, the Euro­pean Union’s top di­plo­mat, de­clined to specif­i­cally ad­dress the Ira­nian an­nounce­ment.

“At the mo­ment, as of to­day, Iran is still tech­ni­cally com­pli­ant and we strongly hope, en­cour­age and ex­pect that Iran con­tin­ues to com­ply,” Mogherini told jour­nal­ists. She in­sisted she would await the next re­port on the is­sue from the U.N.’s nu­clear watch­dog, the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency.

Un­der terms of the 2015 nu­clear deal with world pow­ers, Iran can keep a stock­pile of no more than 300 kilo­grams (660 pounds) of low-en­riched ura­nium. Ka­mal­vandi said that given Iran’s re­cent de­ci­sion to quadru­ple its pro­duc­tion of low-en­riched ura­nium, it would pass the 300-kilo­gram limit on Thurs­day, June 27.

The Vi­enna-based IAEA said last month that Iran re­mained within its stock­pile lim­its and de­clined to com­ment on Iran’s an­nounce­ment. Ka­mal­vandi said Iran would con­tinue to al­low the U.N. to in­spect its nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties for the time be­ing.

He also raised the specter of in­creas­ing its en­rich­ment lev­els, say­ing Iran needs 5% en­riched ura­nium for its nu­clear power plant in south­ern Ira­nian port of Bushehr and 20% en­riched fuel for its Tehran re­search re­ac­tor.

The nu­clear deal lim­its Iran to en­rich­ing ura­nium only to 3.67%, enough for power plants and other peace­ful pur­poses.

But af­ter Amer­ica pulled out of the nu­clear ac­cord and es­ca­lated sanc­tions, Rouhani set a July 7 dead­line for Eu­rope to come up with bet­ter terms for the deal or Tehran would boost en­rich­ment fur­ther. So far, a Euro­pean mech­a­nism called INSTEX to pro­tect trade with Iran has yet to take off.

The dan­ger, nu­clear non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ex­perts warn, is that at 20% en­rich­ment, only a frac­tion of atoms need to be re­moved to en­rich up to weapons-grade lev­els of 90%. Iran main­tains its nu­clear pro­gram is for peace­ful pur­poses, but the 2015 deal grew out of West­ern con­cerns about the pro­gram.

Un­der the ac­cord, Iran agreed to limit its ura­nium en­rich­ment in ex­change for the lift­ing of eco­nomic sanc­tions. Since Trump took of­fice, the U.S. has steadily stripped away at the ac­cord, and he pulled Amer­ica out of the deal in May 2018.

How­ever, Iran’s an­nounce­ment that it was on the verge of sur­pass­ing the ura­nium-stock­pile limit set by the nu­clear agree­ment put the U.S. is the awk­ward po­si­tion of hav­ing to push Iran to abide by the deal Trump has dis­par­aged.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate that they have made this an­nounce­ment to­day,” State De­part­ment spokes­woman Mor­gan Orta­gus said. “It doesn’t sur­prise any­body and this is why the pres­i­dent has of­ten said that the JCPOA needs to be re­placed with a bet­ter deal.”

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu said the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity should re­in­state sanc­tions if Iran fol­lows through on its threats, adding: “In any case, Is­rael will not al­low Iran to ob­tain nu­clear weapons.”

Ten­sions have risen in the re­gion since last month. The U.S. rushed an air­craft car­rier strike group and other mil­i­tary as­sets to the Mid­dle East in re­sponse to what it said were threats from Iran. On Mon­day, the Pen­tagon said it would send ad­di­tional se­cu­rity forces and troops for in­creased sur­veil­lance and in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing in the re­gion.

Mean­while, a series of mys­te­ri­ous at­tacks have tar­geted oil tankers, and the U.S. blames Ira­ni­an­laid limpet mines. Ira­ni­an­backed Houthi rebels in Ye­men also have launched a series of drone and mis­sile at­tacks on Saudi Ara­bia. The Pen­tagon on Mon­day re­leased new pho­tos in­tended to bolster its case that Iran was re­spon­si­ble for the at­tacks.

Iran’s para­mil­i­tary Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard, which the U.S. suspects in the at­tacks, an­swers only to Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei and op­er­ates out­side of the tra­di­tional mil­i­tary’s con­trol.

Gen. Mo­ham­mad Hos­sein Bagheri, the chief of the gen­eral staff of Iran’s armed forces, de­nied Tehran was in­volved in the tanker at­tacks, say­ing Mon­day the coun­try only would re­spond in “an open, strong and se­vere way” if needed.

But he also reit­er­ated Iran’s tra­di­tional stance on the Strait of Hor­muz.

“If we de­cide to block the Strait of Hor­muz, we will to do it in a way that even a drop of oil won’t pass the strait,” Bagheri added.

Ka­mal­vandi spoke to Ira­nian jour­nal­ists at the coun­try’s Arak heavy wa­ter nu­clear re­ac­tor. Such re­ac­tors pro­duce plu­to­nium that can be used in nu­clear weapons. Iran, un­der the nu­clear deal, had re­con­fig­ured the fa­cil­ity to ad­dress West­ern con­cerns on that is­sue.

How­ever, Ka­mal­vandi said the coun­try could re­build the fa­cil­ity to make it pro­duce plu­to­nium. He made a point to give an in­ter­view to Ira­nian state tele­vi­sion, stand­ing next to the open pit where the re­ac­tor would be in the fa­cil­ity.

As the cam­era panned down to what would be the re­ac­tor’s core, Ka­mal­vandi stressed that pip­ing could be re­placed and the re­ac­tor could be built to make plu­to­nium. Hard-lin­ers op­posed to the nu­clear deal had con­stantly ac­cused the agency of fill­ing the en­tire pit with con­crete.

“They had pre­vi­ously pho­to­shopped a pic­ture of this place hav­ing been filled up with con­crete,” Ka­mal­vandi said.

He added: “The mes­sage that we tried to get across to Euro­peans to­day was that not much time is left for them.”

ATOMIC EN­ERGY SPOKESMAN BEHROUZ KA­MAL­VANDI SUG­GESTED THAT IRAN’S EN­RICH­MENT COULD REACH UP TO 20%, JUST A STEP AWAY FROM WEAPONS-GRADE LEV­ELS.

HAMID FOROUTAN AP

This 2011 photo shows the heavy wa­ter nu­clear fa­cil­ity near Arak, southwest of the cap­i­tal Tehran, Iran. Iran will break the ura­nium stock­pile limit set by Tehran’s nu­clear deal with world pow­ers in the next 10 days, the spokesman for the coun­try’s atomic agency said Mon­day.

AP

This satel­lite im­age pro­vided by Maxar Technologi­es shows the oil tanker Front Al­tair off the coast of Fu­jairah, United Arab Emi­rates, on Mon­day.

VAHID SALEMI AP

Ira­nian of­fi­cial Behrouz Ka­mal­vandi says Iran will break the ura­nium stock­pile limit set by Tehran’s nu­clear deal.

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