Iran insists it can enrich uranium to 90% purity – weapons grade – if needed

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran said on Wednesday it could enrich uranium up to 90% purity — weapons grade — if its nuclear reactors needed it, but added it still sought the revival of a 2015 deal that would limit its atomic program in return for a lifting of sanctions.

President Hassan Rouhani’s remark is his second such public comment this year about 90% enrichment — a level suitable for a nuclear bomb — underlining Iran’s resolve to keep breaching the deal in the absence of any accord to revive it.

The biggest obstacle to producing nuclear weapons is obtaining enough fissile material – weapons-grade highly enriched uranium or plutonium – for the bomb’s core.

Iran says it has never sought nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization can enrich uranium by 20% and 60% and if one day our reactors need it, it can enrich uranium to 90% purity,” Rouhani told a cabinet meeting, Iranian state media reported.

The nuclear deal caps the fissile purity to which Tehran can refine uranium at 3.67%, well under the 20% achieved before the pact and far below the 90% suitable for a nuclear weapon.

Iran has been breaching the deal in several ways after the United States withdrew from the agreement in 2018, including by producing 20% and 60% enriched uranium.

Rouhani, who will hand over the presidency to hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi on Aug. 5, implicitly criticized Iran’s top decision makers for “not allowing” his government to reinstate the nuclear deal during its term in office.

“They took away the opportunity to reach an agreement from this government. We deeply regret missing this opportunity,” the state news agency IRNA quoted Rouhani as saying.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the president, has the last say on all state matters such as nuclear policy.

Like Khamenei, Raisi has backed indirect talks between Tehran and Washington aimed at bringing back the arch foes into full compliance with the accord. Former U.S. President Donald Trump quit the deal three years ago, saying it was biased in favour of Iran, and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran.

The sixth round of nuclear talks in Vienna adjourned on June 20. The next round of the talks has yet to be scheduled, and Iranian and Western officials have said that significant gaps still remain to be resolved.

Two senior Iranian officials told Reuters that president-elect Raisi planned to adopt “a harder line” in the talks after taking office, adding that the next round might resume in late September or early October.

One of the officials said many members of Iran’s nuclear team might be replaced with hardline officials, but top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi would stay “at least for a while”.

The second official said Raisi planned to show “less flexibility and demand more concessions” from Washington such as keeping a chain of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in place and insisting on the removal of human rights and terrorism related U.S. sanctions.

Trump blacklisted dozens of institutions vital to Iran’s economy using laws designed to punish foreign actors for supporting terrorism or weapons proliferation.

Removing oil and financial sanctions is essential if Iran is to export its oil, the top prize for Tehran for complying with the nuclear agreement and reining in its atomic program.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Jason Neely, William Maclean)

Iran begins process of making enriched uranium metal; U.S., E3 dismayed

By Francois Murphy, Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed

VIENNA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Iran has begun the process of producing enriched uranium metal, the U.N. atomic watchdog said on Tuesday, a move that could help it develop a nuclear weapon and that three European powers said threatened talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Iran’s steps, which were disclosed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and which Tehran said were aimed at developing fuel for a research reactor, also drew criticism from the United States, which called them an “unfortunate step backwards.”

U.S. and European officials made clear that Iran’s decision would complicate, and potentially torpedo, indirect U.S.-Iranian talks seeking to bring both nations back into compliance with the 2015 deal, which was abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

The deal imposed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program to make it harder for Tehran to develop fissile material for nuclear weapons in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. After Trump withdrew, Iran began violating many of its restrictions.

Tehran has already produced a small amount of uranium metal this year that was not enriched. That is a breach of the deal, which bans all work on uranium metal since it can be used to make the core of a nuclear bomb.

“Today, Iran informed the Agency that UO2 (uranium oxide) enriched up to 20% U–235 would be shipped to the R&D laboratory at the Fuel Fabrication Plant in Esfahan, where it would be converted to UF4 (uranium tetrafluoride) and then to uranium metal enriched to 20% U–235, before using it to manufacture the fuel,” an IAEA statement said.

A confidential IAEA report seen by Reuters said the agency had confirmed that Iran had taken the second of the four steps described, making clear it has begun the process.

Britain, France and Germany said on Tuesday they had “grave concern” about Iran’s decision, which violates the nuclear deal formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Iran has no credible civilian need for uranium metal R&D and production, which are a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon,” they said in a joint statement issued by Britain’s foreign ministry.

“With its latest steps, Iran is threatening a successful outcome to the Vienna talks despite the progress achieved in six rounds of negotiations,” they said, and urged Iran to return to the talks, which began in April and adjourned on June 20. No date has been set for a next round.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Washington was not setting a deadline for the talks but noted “that as time proceeds Iran’s nuclear advances will have a bearing on our view of returning to the JCPOA.”

Price said the United States found it “worrying” that Iran was continuing to violate the agreement “especially with experiments that have value for nuclear weapons research.

“It’s another unfortunate step backwards for Iran,” he said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna and by Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Jonathan Landay and Simon Lewis in Washington and by David Milliken in London; Writing by Francois Murphy and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Goodman and Sonya Hepinstall)

Iran names hardline cleric as top judge amid calls for probe into past abuses

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran’s supreme leader promoted a hardline cleric to serve as head of the judiciary on Friday, amid international calls for investigations into allegations of abuses.

Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, now the judiciary’s deputy head, will replace Ebrahim Raisi, who takes office in August as president after winning a June 18 election.

Ejei was put on U.S. and EU sanctions blacklists a decade ago for his role in a crackdown on a popular uprising when he served as intelligence minister during a disputed election.

The choice of someone with such a high profile as a hardliner could draw further attention to allegations of past abuses by Iran at a time when the new U.S. administration is trying to negotiate a thaw with Tehran.

This week, a U.N. expert called for a new investigation into Raisi’s alleged role in the deaths of thousands of political prisoners when he served as a judge in the 1980s. Raisi denies wrongdoing.

Rights groups have criticized the election of Raisi in a vote in which prominent rivals were barred from standing.

In a statement, Khamenei urged Ejei to “promote justice, restore public rights, ensure legitimate freedoms, and oversee the proper implementation of laws, prevent crime, and resolutely fight corruption,” state news agency IRNA reported.

The U.N. investigator on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, told Reuters this week there should be an independent inquiry into allegations of state-ordered executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, and the role played by Raisi as Tehran deputy prosecutor at the time.

“As I have described in my reports, there is a widespread and systemic impunity in the country for gross violations of human rights, both historically in the past as well as in the present,” he said. “There are very few if any real avenues for accountability in line with international standards within domestic channels.”

Iran has repeatedly dismissed the criticism of its human rights record as baseless and a result of a lack of understanding of its Islamic laws. It says its legal system is independent and not influenced by political interests.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said last month that Raisi’s election was a blow for human rights and called for him to be investigated over his role in the 1988 executions.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Robin Emmot in Brussels and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by William Maclean and Howard Goller)

U.N. chief urges U.S. to remove Iran sanctions as agreed in 2015

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) -U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed to U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to lift or waive all sanctions on Iran as agreed under a 2015 deal aimed at stopping Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.

In a report to the U.N. Security Council, Guterres also urged the United States to “extend the waivers with regard to the trade in oil with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and fully renew waivers for nuclear non-proliferation projects.”

The 15-member council discussed on Wednesday the secretary-general’s biannual report on the implementation of a 2015 resolution that enshrines the nuclear deal between Iran, the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the pact in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions, prompting Tehran to start violating some of the nuclear limits in 2019. In his report, Guterres described Iran’s violations as “worrying steps” and appealed to Tehran to return to full compliance.

Guterres’ appeal to Washington and Tehran comes amid talks to revive the deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – under which Iran accepted curbs on its nuclear program in return for a lifting of many foreign sanctions against it.

“The last few rounds of discussions in Vienna have helped to crystallize the choices that need to be made by Iran and by the United States in order achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA,” deputy U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, told the Security Council on Wednesday.

A date for the next round of talks in Vienna has yet to be agreed upon, but Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said: “We’re already seeing the profile of a future agreement, there’s a general understanding of how to move forward to the goals set before us.”

Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said it was “those who broke their promises” who must make hard decisions, calling for “assurances that all sanctions are removed verifiably and the U.S. will not once again withdraw.”

China’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Geng Shuang called on the United States to respond to Iran’s request for a guarantee that it would not again quit the deal.

The European Union is coordinating the Vienna talks and EU Ambassador to the United Nations, Olof Skoog, warned: “It is clear that time is not on our side and that what might be possible still today may prove impossible in the near future. We have a limited diplomatic window ahead of us that we should not miss.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Alistair Bell)

Oil rises on expectation that Iranian supply won’t return soon

By Stephanie Kelly

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Oil prices edged higher on Tuesday after the top U.S. diplomat said that even if the United States were to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, hundreds of U.S. sanctions on Tehran would remain in place.

That could mean additional Iranian oil supply would not be re-introduced into the market soon.

“I would anticipate that even in the event of a return to compliance with the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), hundreds of sanctions will remain in place, including sanctions imposed by the Trump administration,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Brent crude rose 39 cents to $71.88 a barrel, a 0.6% gain. U.S. West Texas Intermediate oil rose 51 cents to $69.74 a barrel.

“Blinken is looking at the reality of the situation and saying even if we do get a deal, there’s a long way to go,” said Phil Flynn, senior analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago. “All those people expecting a flood of oil are going to be disappointed.”

Barriers to the revival of Iran’s nuclear deal remain ahead of talks due to resume this week between Tehran and world powers, four diplomats, two Iranian officials and two analysts said.

In China, data showing China’s crude imports were down 14.6% in May on a yearly basis weighed on futures.

Crude prices have risen in recent weeks, with Brent up by nearly 40% this year and WTI gaining even more, amid expectations of demand returning as some countries succeed in vaccinating populations against COVID-19.

Restraint on supply by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies has also helped buttress prices.

Meanwhile, U.S. crude inventories have been drawing down and were forecast to drop for a third straight week, analysts said in a poll ahead of industry data from the American Petroleum Institute at 4:30 p.m. EDT (2030 GMT), followed by the government’s report on Wednesday.

“The fundamental environment on the oil market remains favorable: fuel demand is recovering strongly not only in the United States, but also in Europe following the (partial) lifting of restrictions,” Commerzbank said.

There are still questions about the demand recovery’s trajectory.

In Britain, one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, there are now doubts that the country will lift all coronavirus-related restrictions as previously planned on June 21.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly in New York; additional reporting by Ahmad Ghaddar and Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Jason Neely)

Iran says nuclear talks not at impasse, but difficult issues remain

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran believes that barriers to the revival of its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers are complicated but not insurmountable, a spokesman said on Tuesday, denying that negotiations had stalled.

Iran and six powers have been negotiating in Vienna since April to work out steps for Tehran and Washington to take, respectively, on nuclear activities and sanctions, for the pact to resume.

“There is no impasse in the Vienna talks,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a news conference streamed live by a state-run website.

“Negotiations have reached a stage where a few key issues need to be decided, and these issues require the proper attention, perfectionism and time.”

Since former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal three years ago and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran has embarked on counter-measures, including rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, a potential pathway to nuclear bombs.

“It is natural that due to the complexities created by the Trump administration’s numerous sanctions and Iran’s measures … Many details need to be considered, but none of these obstacles are insurmountable,” Rabiei added.

On Monday, Iran’s nuclear negotiator expressed doubt that the current round of talks would be the final one.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said Washington will return to the pact if Tehran first resumes compliance with its strict limits on uranium enrichment.

Separately, France, one of the signatories to the deal, voiced concern after a report from the U.N. nuclear watchdog which showed on Monday that Iran had failed to explain traces of uranium found at several undeclared sites.

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll, asked whether Paris wanted to resurrect a resolution criticizing Iran at the IAEA watchdog for not clarifying the uranium issue, said: “We strongly call on Iran to provide such responses as quickly as possible.”

Three months ago Britain, France and Germany scrapped a U.S.-backed plan for the watchdog’s 35-nation Board of Governors to criticize Iran for failing to fully explain the origin of the particles. The three backed off as IAEA chief Rafael Grossi announced fresh talks with Iran.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, and John Irish in Paris; Editing by John Stonestreet and Alison Williams)

Iran sees Vienna talks moving forward, warns against excessive demands

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran’s chief negotiator said on Tuesday talks to save the 2015 nuclear accord were moving forward despite difficulties but warned Tehran would stop the negotiations if faced with “unreasonable demands” or time wasting.

Iran and world powers have made headway in the Vienna talks though much more work is needed, a senior European Union official said, with meetings to resume next week after consultations in their respective capitals.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi “assessed the current trend of the talks as going forward, despite the existing difficulties and challenges,” Iranian state media reported.

“The Iranian delegation will stop the talks whenever the process of negotiations leads to unreasonable demands, waste of time and irrational bargaining,” Araqchi was quoted as saying.

“It is too early to judge the outcome or to say whether we are optimistic or pessimistic, but we think we are on the right track,” Araqchi told state television.

Hardline-led Iranian news agencies quoted an unnamed source as saying the United States was only planning to issue temporary waivers instead of permanently lifting sanctions, which Washington re-imposed on Tehran after withdrawing from the nuclear accord in 2018.

“America’s intention is not to lift the sanctions completely and to be satisfied with temporary waivers on some sanctions in order to simply return to the nuclear accord so that it can use the possibility of the snapback mechanism against Iran,” Fars news agency quoted the source as telling state-run Press TV.

But Araqchi, widely seen as a pragmatist, said on Twitter: “I don’t know who the ‘informed source’ of Press TV in Vienna is, but s/he is certainly not ‘informed’.”

Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear work in return for relief from U.S. and other sanctions. The accord includes the option of a snapback of U.N. sanctions if Iran breaches the deal, requiring Tehran to suspend all nuclear enrichment-related activities, including research development.

Earlier on Tuesday, Iran’s government said it began enriching uranium to 60% purity to show its technical capacity after a sabotage attack at a nuclear plant, and added the move is quickly reversible if the United States lifts sanctions.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom;Editing by Alison Williams and Cynthia Osterman)

Iran says 60% enrichment meant to show nuclear prowess, is reversible

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran began enriching uranium to 60% purity in order to show its technical capacity after a sabotage attack at a nuclear plant, and the move is quickly reversible if the United States lifts sanctions, the Iranian government said on Tuesday.

Talks in Vienna aimed at bringing the United States and Iran back to full compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal have been further complicated by an explosion at Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility at Natanz.

Iran has responded by saying it is enriching uranium to 60% fissile purity, a big step towards weapons-grade from the 20% it had previously achieved. The 2015 pact between Iran and world powers had capped the level of enrichment purity at 3.67% – suitable for generating civilian nuclear energy. Iran denies seeking a nuclear weapon.

“The start of 60% enrichment in Natanz was a demonstration of our technical ability to respond to terrorist sabotage at these facilities,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters in Tehran.

“As in previous steps (in curbing Iran’s commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal), … this measure can quickly be reversed for a return to the agreed enrichment level in the nuclear accord if other parties commit to their obligations,” Rabiei said, in remarks streamed live on a state-run website.

Tehran says the Natanz blast was an act of sabotage by Israel, and on Saturday Iranian authorities named a suspect. Israel has not formally commented on the incident.

Iran responded to the explosion by saying it is enriching uranium to 60%.

Iran and world powers have made some progress on how to revive the 2015 nuclear accord later abandoned by the United States, and an interim deal could be a way to gain time for a lasting settlement, Iranian officials said on Monday.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told visiting British Cabinet Office Minister Michel Gove that Iran should not be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon.

“Iran is undermining stability in the entire Middle East and the international community must act to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. Not today and not in the future,” an Israeli statement quoted Ashkenazi as saying.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Editing by William Maclean)

Iran says it begins 60% uranium enrichment following nuclear site incident

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran has begun 60% uranium enrichment, the country’s chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi told state media on Tuesday, a day after Tehran accused arch-foe Israel of sabotaging a key nuclear site.

Araqchi made his announcement shortly before the resumption of talks in Vienna aimed at reviving Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, an accord Israel fiercely opposed, after former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned it three years ago.

Last week, Iran and the global powers held what they described as “constructive” talks to salvage the deal, which has unraveled as Iran has breached its limits on sensitive uranium enrichment since Trump reimposed harsh sanctions on Tehran.

The deal had capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for centrifuges, at 3.67%, far below the 90% of weapons grade.

Iran in recent months has raised enrichment to 20% purity, a level where uranium is considered to be highly enriched and a big step towards enriching to weapons-grade.

Iran’s top diplomat said earlier on Tuesday that an attack on its Natanz nuclear facility which it blames on Israel was a “very bad gamble” that would strengthen Tehran’s hand in talks to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with major powers.

Tehran has said an explosion on Sunday at its key nuclear site was an act of sabotage by arch-foe Israel and vowed revenge for an attack that appeared to be the latest episode in a long-running covert war. Israel, which the Islamic Republic does not recognize, has not formally commented on the incident.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said Tehran must resume full compliance with restrictions on its nuclear activity under the deal before Washington can rejoin the pact.

The White House said on Monday the United States was not involved in Sunday’s attack and had no comment on speculation about the cause of the incident.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean and Jon Boyle)

Iran’s final report blames air defense operator error for Ukraine plane crash

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s civil aviation body, in a final report, has blamed an error by an air defense operator for the shooting-down of a Ukrainian passenger plane in January 2020 that killed all 176 people aboard, the agency said on Wednesday.

Ukraine’s foreign minister criticized the report, calling it a cynical attempt by the Islamic Republic authorities to cover up the true reasons for the crash.

The Iranian report said: “The plane was identified as a hostile target due to a mistake by the air defense operator…near Tehran and two missiles were fired at it,” according to the agency’s website.

“The flight’s operation did not have a role in creating the error by the air defense battery,” the report added.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight on Jan. 8, 2020 shortly after it took off from Tehran Airport.

The Iranian government later declared that the shooting-down was a “disastrous mistake” by forces who were on high alert during a regional confrontation with the United States.

Iran was on edge about possible attacks after it fired missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. forces in retaliation for the killing days before of its most powerful military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. missile strike at Baghdad airport.

As in a preliminary report issued last June, Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization said the error arose from a misalignment of a battery’s radar and a lack of communication between the air defense operator and his commanders.

“Following a tactical relocation, the relevant ADU (air defense unit) failed to adjust the system direction due to human error, causing the operator to observe the target flying west from IKA (airport) as a target approaching Tehran from the southwest at a relatively low altitude,” the final report said.

“Without receiving a go-ahead or response from the command center, he (operator) came to identify the target as a hostile one and fired missile(s) at the aircraft against the procedure planned,” it said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba lambasted the report in a post on Facebook. “What we saw in the published report today is nothing more than a cynical attempt to hide the true reasons for the downing of our plane,” he said.

“We will not allow Iran to hide the truth, we will not allow it to avoid responsibility for this crime.”

The Tehran government has allocated $150,000 for damages to be paid to families of the crash victims said several people have been put on trial over the disaster.

Ukraine has said the compensation should be set through talks, taking into account international practice, once the causes of the tragedy are established and those responsible are brought to justice.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom and Natalia Zinets in Kyiv; editing by Mark Heinrich)