Iran has followed through on a threat to accelerate its production of enriched uranium, the head of the UN atomic watchdog said on Monday, departing from his usual guarded language to say he was worried about increasing tension.
Recent weeks have seen the US-Iranian confrontation sharply increase, a year after the United States withdrew from an agreement between Iran and world powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international financial sanctions. Washington tightened sanctions at the beginning of May, ordering all countries and companies to halt all imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.
The US has also begun discussing military confrontation, dispatching extra troops to the region to counter what it describes as Iranian threats. Iran has also responded with a threat to increase its enrichment of uranium, saying it was up to Europeans 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 stockpile limits set in the pact.
“Yes, (the) production rate is increasing,” he told a news conference 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 say by how much it had increased.
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 high.
On Monday, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas became the most senior Western official to visit Iran since the new war of words erupted last month between Washington and Tehran.
“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.”
“Israel’s right to exist belongs to the German raison d’être and is not negotiable,” Maas said. “It is a result of our history. It is unbreakable. And that certainly does not change anything because I’m here in Tehran.”
Zarif blamed the United States for the escalation, and also criticized Israel’s “aggressive policies.”
“Reducing tension is only possible through stopping the economic war by America,” said Iran’s top envoy. “Those who wage such wars cannot expect to remain safe.”
Zarif said talks with Maas were “frank and serious,” but, he added, “Tehran will cooperate with EU signatories of the deal to save it.” Zarif slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and warned that if any country starts a war with Iran, Iran would “end it.”
The foreign minister spoke about US President Donald Trump and the US “Deal of the Century” with Maas. Haranguing the press, while Maas looked down and seemed a bit uncomfortable, the Iranian minister appeared to seek to deter Israel and the US from any conflict.
Zarif’s comments appeared to seek to use the visit to threaten and boast about Iran’s power, and also to highlight Israel. The foreign minister pointed out the existence of the supposed Dimona nuclear factory as a way of threatening Iran.
Netanyahu replied to Zarif’s comments on Monday, saying in a taped message that the Iranian foreign minister “is lying again.”
“Iran is the one that openly threatens, every day, to destroy the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “Iran continues to entrench itself militarily in Syria. And today, the IAEA reports that Iran is accelerating its nuclear program. I repeat: Israel will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons that threaten our existence and endanger the entire world.”
IAEA chief Amano said he was “worried about increasing tensions over the Iranian nuclear issue,” and that he hoped “that ways can be found to reduce the current tensions through dialogue. It is essential that Iran fully implements its nuclear-related commitments” under the deal.
Washington’s European allies opposed the decision last year to abandon the nuclear deal. They have promised to help Iran find other ways to trade, though 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.
Iran says the Europeans have not done enough to provide it with alternative ways to trade. Maas acknowledged limits on how much help the European countries can provide.
“We want to fulfill our obligations,” Maas said during his joint news conference with Zarif. “We cannot work miracles, but we will try to avert a failure” of the nuclear deal.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said: “So far, we have not seen practical and tangible steps from the Europeans to guarantee Iran’s interests.”
France, Britain and Germany have set up a special-purpose vehicle called Instex, designed to allow payments to Iran that would legally bypass sanctions. It has yet to be broadly launched. The former Commerzbank banker Pers Fischer is running Instex in Paris.
“This is an instrument of a new kind, so it’s not straightforward to operationalize it,” Maas told reporters. “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.”
Maas, who came to Tehran to save the nuclear deal, has faced previous criticism in February for allowing foreign ministry diplomats to celebrate Iran’s Islamic revolution at Tehran’s embassy in Berlin. The Iranian revolution calls for the destruction of Israel and the US.
Maas’s foreign ministry also vehemently rejected outlawing all of Iran’s main proxy – the Lebanese terrorist entity Hezbollah – in Germany. He continued to face criticism on Twitter on Monday for seeking to boost trade, as well as meet with a regime which sponsors Holocaust denial and has threatened to obliterate the Jewish state, despite Maas’s declaration that he entered politics last year “because of Auschwitz.”
The US has denounced the European plans. Diplomats say the system is unlikely to have much impact on commercial trade with Iran, but could be used for humanitarian transactions that are permitted under US sanctions.
Washington says the nuclear deal should be expanded to cover other issues, including Iran’s missile program and its role in wars in the region. European countries say they share those concerns, although they argue that it would be harder to address them without the nuclear deal in place.
Iran strongly opposes any effort to expand negotiations to cover other issues.
“The EU is not in a position to question Iran’s issues beyond the nuclear deal,” Mousavi said.Reuters contributed to this report.
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