Iran makes new nuclear threats that would reverse steps in pact

Abbas Araqchi, Iranian deputy foreign minister for political affairs (R), Behrouz Kamalvandi, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization spokesman (L) and Iran's government spokesman Ali Rabiei attend a news conferenece in Tehran, Iran July 7, 2019. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Tuqa Khalid

GENEVA/DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran threatened on Monday to restart deactivated centrifuges and ramp up its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity as its next potential big moves away from a 2015 nuclear agreement that Washington abandoned last year.

The threats, made by the spokesman for Tehran’s nuclear agency, would go far beyond the small steps Iran has taken in the past week to nudge its stocks of fissile material just beyond limits in the nuclear pact.

That could raise serious questions about whether the agreement, intended to block Iran from making a nuclear weapon, is still viable.

The two threats would reverse major achievements of the agreement, although 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.

In a separate standoff, Iran’s foreign minister accused Britain on Monday of “piracy, pure and simple” for seizing an Iranian oil tanker last week. Britain says the ship was bound for Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, confirmed an announcement that Tehran had enriched uranium beyond the deal’s limit of 3.67% purity, passing 4.5%, according to the student’s news agency ISNA.

That followed an announcement a week ago that it had amassed a greater quantity of low-enriched uranium than permitted.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, said it was still verifying whether Iran had indeed exceeded the 3.67% limit.

Iran has said it will take another, third step away from the deal within 60 days but has so far held back from formally announcing what it plans. Kamalvandi said options included enriching uranium to 20% purity or beyond, and restarting IR-2 M centrifuges that were dismantled as one of the deal’s core aims.

Such threats will 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.

CENTRIFUGES

Washington has imposed sanctions that eliminate any of the benefits Iran was meant to receive in return for agreeing to curbs on its nuclear program under the 2015 deal with world powers. The confrontation has brought the United States and Iran close to the brink of conflict, with President Donald Trump calling off airstrikes last month minutes before impact.

Enriching uranium up to 20% purity would be a dramatic move since that was the level Iran had achieved before the deal was put in place, 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% pure fissile uranium needed to make a bomb.

One of the main achievements of the deal was Iran’s agreement to dismantle its advanced IR-2M centrifuges, used to purify uranium. Iran had 1,000 of them installed at its large enrichment site at Natanz before the deal was reached. Under the deal, it is allowed to operate only up to two for testing.

Still, the threatened measures also appear intended to be sufficiently ambiguous to hold back from fully repudiating the deal. Kamalvandi did not specify how much uranium Iran might purify to the higher level, nor how many centrifuges it would consider restarting. He did not mention other more advanced centrifuges, including the most advanced, the IR-8. Iran has said all the steps it is contemplating are reversible.

‘PIRACY, PURE AND SIMPLE’

Nuclear diplomacy is only one aspect of a wider confrontation between Washington and Tehran that has threatened to spiral into open conflict since the United States sharply tightened sanctions on Iran from the start of May.

Last month, President Donald Trump ordered U.S. airstrikes on Iran, only to call them off minutes before.

Washington’s European allies have been warning that a small mistake on either side could lead to war.

European countries do not directly support the U.S. sanctions but have been unable to come up with ways to allow Iran to avert them.

Britain, one of Washington’s main European allies, was drawn deeper into the confrontation last week when its Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker entering the Mediterranean off the coast of Gibraltar over separate sanctions against Syria.

“Iran is neither a member of the EU nor subject to any European oil embargo. Last I checked, EU was against extraterritoriality. UK’s unlawful seizure of a tanker with Iranian oil on behalf of #B_Team is piracy, pure and simple,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Monday, using ‘B team’ as a derisory term for the Trump administration.

The nuclear agreement guaranteed Iran access to world trade in return for accepting curbs on its nuclear program. Iran says the deal allows it to respond to the U.S. breach by reducing its compliance, and it will do so every 60 days.

“If signatories of the deal, particularly Europeans, fail to fulfill their commitments in a serious way, the third step will be stronger, more decisive and a bit surprising,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Monday.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi and Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Satellite images may show reprocessing activity at North Korea nuclear site: U.S. researchers

A view of what researchers of Beyond Parallel, a CSIS project, describe as specialized rail cars at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center in North Pyongan Province, North Korea, in this commercial satellite image taken April 12, 2019 and released April 16, 2019. CSIS/Beyond Parallel/DigitalGlobe 2019 via REUTERS

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Satellite images from last week show movement at North Korea’s main nuclear site that could be associated with the reprocessing of radioactive material into bomb fuel, a U.S. think tank said on Tuesday.

Any new reprocessing activity would underscore the failure of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in late February to make progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report that satellite imagery of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site from April 12 showed five specialized railcars near its Uranium Enrichment Facility and Radiochemistry Laboratory.

It said their movement could indicate the transfer of radioactive material.

“In the past, these specialized railcars appear to have been associated with the movement of radioactive material or reprocessing campaigns.” the report said. “The current activity, along with their configurations, does not rule out their possible involvement in such activity, either before or after a reprocessing campaign.”

The U.S. State Department declined to comment on intelligence matters, but a source familiar with U.S. government assessments said that while U.S. experts thought the movements could possibly be related to reprocessing, they were doubtful it was significant nuclear activity.

Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center think tank, said that if reprocessing was taking place, it would be a significant given U.S.-North Korean talks in the past year and the failure to reach an agreement on the future of Yongbyon in Hanoi.

“Because there wasn’t an agreement with North Korea on Yongbyon, it would be interesting timing if they were to have started something so quickly after Hanoi,” she said.

Trump has met Kim twice in the past year to try to persuade him to abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States, but progress so far has been scant.

The Hanoi talks collapsed after Trump proposed a “big deal” in which sanctions on North Korea would be lifted if it handed over all its nuclear weapons and fissile material to the United States. He rejected partial denuclearization steps offered by Kim, which included an offer to dismantle Yongbyon.

Although Kim has maintained a freeze in missile and nuclear tests since 2017, U.S. officials say North Korea has continued to produce fissile material that can be processed for use in bombs.

Last month, a senior North Korean official warned that Kim might rethink the test freeze unless Washington made concessions.

Last week, Kim said the Hanoi breakdown raised the risks of reviving tensions, adding that he was only interested in meeting Trump again if the United States came with the right attitude.

Kim said he would wait “till the end of this year” for the United States to decide to be more flexible. On Monday, Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brushed aside this demand with Pompeo saying Kim should keep his promise to give up his nuclear weapons before then.

Town said any new reprocessing work at Yongbyon would emphasize the importance of the facility in North Korea’s nuclear program.

“It would underscore that it is an active facility that does increase North Korea’s fissile material stocks to increase its arsenal.”

A study by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation released ahead of the Hanoi summit said North Korea had continued to produce bomb fuel in 2018 and may have produced enough in the past year to add as many as seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal.

Experts have estimated the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal at anywhere between 20 and 60 warheads.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Tom Brown and Grant McCool)