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Iran threatens to exceed nuclear deal limits

One week after a warning from IAEA, Iran said it will soon increase its low-level enriched uranium stockpile above a limit in the 2015 nuclear deal.

VIENNA (AN) — One week after a warning from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, Iran said on Monday amid escalating Mideast tensions that it will soon increase its low-level enriched uranium stockpile above a limit in the 2015 nuclear deal.

The spokesperson for Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said the stockpile of enriched uranium permitted under the deal would exceed the agreed upon limit by June 27.

"We will go further from that ceiling, not only that but we will also increase production drastically," he told Iranian journalists at the Arak nuclear plant. "After we pass the limit of 300 kilograms, the pace and the speed of enriched uranium production at the lower rate will also increase."

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration reacted by ordering 1,000 more troops for surveillance and intelligence gathering in the Middle East. Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the forces are defensive in nature, ordered in response to a request from U.S. Central Command to beef up the ability to handle air, ground and naval threats, but "the United States does not seek conflict with Iran."

The United States previously had positioned an aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the Middle East in response to perceived threats from Iran and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen who launched drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Under the deal, Iran is limited to enriching uranium to 3.67%, enough to fuel a commercial nuclear power plant. Weapons grade uranium needs to be enriched to around 90%.

Iran previously enriched uranium to 20%, which cuts in half the time it takes to get to 90%. Kamalvandi warned that Tehran could again start enriching uranium to 20%.

Tehran's announcement and the Trump administration's response raises the stakes as tensions escalate in the Gulf and Europe struggles to salvage the deal. Kamalvandi's announcement appeared to be an attempt to pressure Europe; he spoke ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers from the European Union in Brussels.

“If this condition continues, there will be no deal,” said Kamalvandi, who also accused European diplomats of "killing time." He said Iran now needs 20% enrichment for a nuclear research reactor and 5% enrichment for a nuclear power plant, but Iran would continue to allow U.N. inspectors to visit.

The 'economic war'

In recent weeks, the Trump administration blamed Iran or its proxies for unexplained attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz, where ships carry a fifth of the world's crude oil. Iran denied involvement, but it has used mines against commercial ships there before.

In May, Tehran announced plans to resume enriching uranium at higher levels if world powers would not accept new terms under the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Under the deal, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of U.N.-brokered international sanctions.

The JCPOA was struck between Iran and the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany and the European Union.

But the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal a year ago — and assured allies that its withdrawal would help to make the world a safer place — then began reimposing harsh economic sanctions, undoing years of complex, global diplomacy conducted during the previous Obama administration.

“We continue to call on the Iranian regime not to obtain a nuclear weapon, to abide by their commitments to the international community,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Monday. “This is why the president has often said that the JCPOA needs to be replaced with a better deal.”

Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said Trump's "economic war" is the cause of all tensions.

The United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, warned last week that Iran must fully implement its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.

“I am worried about increasing tensions over the Iranian nuclear issue,” IAEA's Director General Yukiya Amano told the agency’s board of governors. The IAEA, which sends inspectors to visit Iran's facilities, has repeatedly assured the world that the JCPOA was indeed working.

"As I have constantly emphasized, the nuclear-related commitments entered into by Iran under the JCPOA represent a significant gain for nuclear verification," he said. "It is essential that Iran fully implements its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.”

E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who planned to meet in Washington on Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump's son-in-law and presidential adviser Jared Kushner, has called on all sides to keep cool.

"We are living in a crucial, delicate moment where the most relevant and responsible attitude to take is that of maximum restraint and avoiding any escalation on a military side," she said in an E.U. statement. "We always encourage dialogue and diplomatic engagement. It has always been our commitment."