Iran appeared poised Sunday to raise its enrichment of uranium and break another limit from its faltering 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, putting new pressure on Europe to save the accord amid a maximalist U.S. sanctions campaign on Tehran.
A year after President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. from the deal, Iran already has broken through the limit the deal put on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. On Sunday, state television reported that officials would hold a news conference to brief journalists on the steps they would take.
All this comes as America has rushed thousands of troops, an aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets to the Mideast. Mysterious oil tanker attacks near the Strait of Hormuz, attacks by Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen on Saudi Arabia and Iran shooting down a U.S. military drone have raised fears of a wider conflict engulfing the region.
In a last-minute diplomatic bid, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, by phone Saturday, saying he is trying to find a way by July 15 to resume dialogue between Iran and Western partners. However, hopes for saving the faltering deal appear increasingly dim, as tensions between the U.S. and Iran continue to rise.
In a video available Saturday on a website for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a top aide said that increasing enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels was “unanimously agreed upon by every component of the establishment.” Ali Akbar Velayati in his remarks also made reference to 5% enrichment.
Under the atomic accord, Iran agreed to enrich uranium to no more than 3.67%, which is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran denies it seeks nuclear weapons, but the nuclear deal sought to prevent that as a possibility by limiting enrichment and Iran’s stockpile of uranium to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).
On Monday, Iran and United Nations inspectors acknowledged it had broken the stockpile limit. Combining that with increasing its enrichment levels narrows the one-year window experts believe Iran would need to have enough material to build a nuclear weapon, if it chose to do so.
Iran stopped producing uranium enriched above 5% in January 2014 amid negotiations for the nuclear deal.
State television also reported Sunday that the news conference would touch on the limits the deal put on Iran’s supply of heavy water. The deal limits Iran to having 130 tons of heavy water. The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has said Iran’s heavy water stockpile was 125.2 metric tons (138 U.S. tons) as of May 26, up from 124.8 tons in February but below the 130-ton limit.
Heavy water helps cool reactors, producing plutonium as a byproduct that can be used in nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile Saturday, the hard-line Kayhan newspaper demanded revenge over the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar that had been heading to Syria.
Authorities in Gibraltar said they seized the Grace 1, believed to be carrying over 2 million barrels of oil, over European Union sanctions on Syria — though Spain said the seizure came at the request of the U.S.
“Seizure of U.K. oil tanker is the only way to confront pirates of the queen,” Kayhan blared in a front-page headline, echoing a suggestion Friday by a former Revolutionary Guard chief.
Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Tehran contributed to this report.