ReutersGENEVA/DUBAI (Reuters) — Iran threatened on Monday to restart deactivated centrifuges and ramp up enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity in a move away from the 2015 nuclear deal, but the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards insisted the world knows Tehran is not pursuing nuclear arms.
The threats to ramp up enrichment, made by Tehran’s nuclear agency spokesman, would go far beyond the small steps Iran has taken in the past week to nudge stocks of fissile material just beyond limits in the pact that Washington abandoned last year.
They would reverse the major achievements of the agreement, intended to block Iran from making a nuclear weapon, and raise serious questions about whether the accord is still viable.
Iran omitted important details about how far it might go to returning to the status quo before the pact, when Western experts believed it could build a bomb within months.
But Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, the head of the Revolutionary Guards, denied Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon.
“Why do they globally sanction us about the nuclear issue when the world knows that we are not pursuing a weapon? In reality they are sanctioning us because of knowledge,” Salami was quoted as saying by the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
“Nuclear weapons have no place in Islam. Islam never approves of weapons of mass destruction,” he added.
Despite the Iranian threat to boost enrichment, the United States said its renewed sanctions against Tehran were working and warned Iranian leaders not to underestimate U.S. resolve.
“President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran is working,” White House national security adviser John Bolton told a pro-Israel group in Washington. “We’re just getting started ... The president’s goal is to get a new deal that would be negotiated in the best interests of the United States.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke to the same group, added a warning: “Iran should not confuse American restraint with a lack of American resolve,” reiterating Washington’s resolve to protect U.S. personnel and citizens in the Middle East.
Nuclear diplomacy is one aspect of a wider confrontation between Washington and Tehran that has threatened to spiral into open conflict since the United States tightened sanctions from May.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, confirmed that Tehran had enriched uranium beyond the 2015 deal’s limit of 3.67 percent purity, passing 4.5 percent, according to news agency ISNA.
The IAEA — the U.N. nuclear watchdog — confirmed it had verified Iran’s enrichment was beyond 3.67 percent.
Iran has said it will take another, third step away from the deal within 60 days. Kamalvandi said options included enriching uranium to 20 percent purity or beyond, and restarting IR-2 M centrifuges dismantled under the deal.
Such threats put new pressure on European countries, which insist Iran must continue to comply with the agreement even though the United States is no longer doing so.
French President Emmanuel Macron was sending his top diplomatic advisor to Iran on Tuesday and Wednesday to try to help defuse tensions, a presidential official said.
The White House said Trump had spoken to Macron on Monday to discuss efforts to ensure Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.
The sanctions imposed by Washington threaten to eliminate the benefits Iran was meant to receive for agreeing to curbs on its nuclear program with world powers. The confrontation has brought the United States and Iran close to the brink of conflict, with U.S. President Donald Trump calling off airstrikes last month minutes before impact.
Enriching uranium up to 20 percent purity would be a dramatic move, since that was the level Iran achieved before the deal, although back then it had a far larger stockpile than it is likely to be able to rebuild in the short term.
It is considered an important intermediate stage on the path to obtaining the 90 percent pure fissile uranium needed for a bomb.