Iran on Monday broke further away from its collapsing 2015 nuclear deal with world powers by doubling the number of advanced centrifuges it operates, linking the decision to U.S. President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the agreement over a year ago.
The announcement — which also included Iran saying it now has a prototype centrifuge that works 50 times faster than those allowed under the deal — came as demonstrators across the country marked the 40th anniversary of the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover that started a 444-day hostage crisis.
By starting up these advanced centrifuges, Iran further cut into the one year that experts estimate Tehran would need to have enough material for building a nuclear weapon — if it chose to pursue one. Iran long has insisted its program is for peaceful purposes, though Western fears about its work led to the 2015 agreement that saw Tehran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilograms (11 pounds), said Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Iran now holds over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, Salehi said. The deal had limited Iran to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).
Visiting Iran's underground Natanz enrichment facility, Salehi dramatically pushed a button on a keyboard to start a chain of 30 IR-6 centrifuges as state television cameras filmed, increasing the number of working centrifuges to 60.
"With the grace of God, I start the gas injection," the U.S.-trained scientist said.
The deal once limited Iran to using only 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges to enrich uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. An IR-6 centrifuge can produce enriched uranium 10 times faster than an IR-1, Iranian officials say.
Salehi also announced that scientists were working on a prototype he called the IR-9, which worked 50-times faster than the IR-1.
As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord's limit of 3.67%. Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. At the 4.5% level, it is enough to help power Iran's Bushehr reactor, the country's only nuclear power plant. Prior to the atomic deal, Iran only reached up to 20%.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will announce further steps away from the accord sometime soon, government spokesman Ali Rabiei separately said Monday, suggesting Salehi's comments could be followed by additional violations of the nuclear deal. An announcement had been expected this week.
Iran has threatened in the past to push enrichment back up to 20%. That would worry nuclear nonproliferation experts because 20% is a short technical step away from reaching weapons-grade levels of 90%. It also has said it could ban inspectors from the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Vienna-based IAEA declined to comment on Iran's announcement. The IAEA previously said Iran planned to build two cascades, one with 164 IR-2M centrifuges and another with 164 IR-5 centrifuges. A cascade is a group of centrifuges working together to more quickly enrich uranium.
Iran broke through its stockpile and enrichment limitations to try to pressure Europe to offer it a new deal, more than a year since Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord. But so far, European nations have been unable to offer Iran a way to help it sell its oil abroad as it faces strict U.S. sanctions.
Salehi again expressed Iran's ability to step back if a deal is made.
"If they return to their commitments, we also will go back to our commitments," he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the Iranians to implement the 2015 nuclear deal, a spokesman said.
"It was a very significant diplomatic achievement," U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said. "He regrets any steps away from that agreement by any of the parties."
Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, urged Iran "to reverse such steps without delay and to refrain from any further measures that would undermine the nuclear deal."
The White House in a statement, noting the 40th anniversary of the hostage crisis, said the U.S. "will continue to impose crippling sanctions" until Iran changes its behavior. The U.S. also imposed new sanctions Monday on members of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's inner circle.
Meanwhile Monday, demonstrators gathered in front of the former U.S. Embassy in downtown Tehran to mark the takeover. The resulting hostage crisis saw Islamist students seize the post in response to U.S. President Jimmy Carter allowing Iran's autocratic leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to receive medical care in the U.S. While some hostages found freedom amid the crisis, 52 Americans were held for 444 days until U.S. President Ronald Reagan's inauguration in Jan. 1981.
"Thanks to God, today the revolution's seedlings have evolved into a fruitful and huge tree that its shadow has covered the entire" Middle East, said Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi, the commander of the Iranian army.
However, this year's commemoration of the embassy seizure comes as Iran's regional allies in Iraq and Lebanon face widespread protests. The Iranian Consulate in Karbala, Iraq, a holy city for Shiites, saw a mob attack it overnight. Violence there killed three people and wounded 19, Iraqi officials said.
Trump retweeted posts by Saudi-linked media showing the chaos outside the consulate. The violence comes after the hard-line Keyhan newspaper in Iran reiterated a call for demonstrators to seize U.S. and Saudi diplomatic posts in Iraq in response to the unrest.
The collapse of the nuclear deal coincided with a tense summer of mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied the allegation, though it did seize oil tankers and shoot down a U.S. military surveillance drone.
The U.S. has increased its military presence across the Mideast, including basing troops in Saudi Arabia for the first time since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Both Saudi Arabia and the neighboring United Arab Emirates are believed to be talking to Tehran through back channels to ease tensions. Rouhani recently sent a letter to both Bahraini and Saudi leaders on regional peace and security, said Rabiei, the Iranian government spokesman.
Turkey captured the elder sister of the slain leader of the Islamic State group in northwestern Syria on Monday, according to a senior Turkish official, who called the arrest an intelligence "gold mine."
Little is known about the sister of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Turkish official said the 65-year-old known as Rasmiya Awad is suspected of being affiliated with the extremist group. He did not elaborate.
Awad was captured in a raid Monday evening on a trailer container she was living in with her family near the town of Azaz in Aleppo province. The area is part of the region administered by Turkey after it carried out a military incursion to chase away IS militants and Kurdish fighters starting 2016. Allied Syrian groups manage the area known as the Euphrates Shield zone.
The official said the sister was with her husband, daughter-in-law and five children. The adults are being interrogated, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government protocol.
"This kind of thing is an intelligence gold mine. What she knows about (IS) can significantly expand our understanding of the group and help us catch more bad guys," the official said.
Al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi from Samarra, was killed in a U.S. raid in the nearby province of Idlib last month. The raid was a major blow to the group, which has lost territories it held in Syria and Iraq in a series of military defeats by the U.S-led coalition and Syrian and Iraqi allies.
Many IS members have escaped through smuggling routes to northwestern Syria in the final days of battle ahead of the group's territorial defeat earlier this year, while others have melted into the desert in Syria or Iraq.
The reclusive leader al-Baghdadi was known to be close to one of his brothers, known by his nom de guerre Abu Hamza.
Al-Baghdadi's aide, a Saudi, was killed hours after the raid, also in northwestern Syria, in a U.S. strike. The group named a successor to al-Baghdadi days later, but little is known about him or how the group's structure has been affected by the successive blows.
Protesters have closed major roads in and elsewhere in Lebanon, paralyzing the country as the political crisis over the formation of a new government worsens.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned last Tuesday, meeting a key demand of the protesters that have been holding demonstration since Oct. 17 demanding an end to widespread corruption and mismanagement by the political class that has ruled the country for three decades.
President Michel Aoun has not yet set a date for consultations with heads of parliamentary blocs to name a new prime minister.
Many schools, universities and businesses were closed on Monday.
On one of Beirut's main avenues, protesters distributed leaflets apologizing for closing roads and saying that the "roads will remain closed until an independent government is formed."
Iranian forces will target the interests of the United States and its allies in case of aggression against Iran by Washington, the spokesman for Iran's Armed Forces said on Sunday.
"Any place and any territorial point sheltering the interests of the United States and its allies would be threatened (in case of aggression against Iran) as Iran has proved that it is capable of doing this," Abolfazl Shekarchi was quoted as saying by Press TV.
"Even if a country is not directly involved in a possible war (against Iran), but its territory is used by the enemy, we would consider that country hostile territory and treat it like an aggressor," Shekarchi said.
On Oct. 22, Chief of Staff of Iranian Armed Forces Mohammad Baqeri said that Iran's military capabilities are for deterrent purposes, however, "enemies will have to pay heavy costs if they carry out any act of aggression against the country."
Tens of thousands of people held competing rallies in Lebanon Sunday, including thousands who flocked to the presidential palace in support of the country's president and others who gathered in downtown Beirut as part of ongoing protests that aim to sweep from power Lebanon's entire political elite.
The leaderless anti-government movement has united Lebanese from various religious sects, who are calling for the overthrow of the political system that has dominated the country since its 1975-1990 civil war. The agreement ending the war distributed power among Christians, Shiites and Sunnis, but led to decades of corruption and economic mismanagement culminating in a severe fiscal crisis.
Around noon Sunday, President Michel Aoun addressed thousands of his supporters at a rally near the presidential palace outside of Beirut. "There are lots of squares and no one should pit one against another, or one demonstration against another," he said, while adding that more would be done to fight deeply rooted political corruption.
Hours after the president spoke, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in a major square in downtown Beirut calling for the government to speed up the political transition following Prime Minister Saad Hariri's resignation last week. They also called for a general strike on Monday to pressure political leaders.
The downtown protesters chanted against Aoun and the country's political establishment saying "all of them" should go. They were the largest protests in Beirut since Tuesday when scores of Hezbollah supporters ransacked an anti-government sit-in, injuring some of the demonstrators.
Aoun's Christian party is allied with the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group, which has accused unnamed foreign powers of manipulating the demonstrations. The Shiite Amal party, another close Hezbollah ally, also held a rally on Sunday in support of its leader, longtime parliament speaker Nabih Berri.
Aoun called on his supporters to work with the anti-government protesters to end corruption and to create a non-sectarian state, in remarks carried live on screens at the rally near the presidential palace in Baabda. He acknowledged that "corruption will not end easily because it has been deeply rooted for decades."
"The people have revolted because their rights are missing," Aoun said. "The people have lost confidence in the state and this is the big problem. We should restore the state's confidence."
Bassil, the target of some of the protesters' harshest chants, also spoke. He defended Hezbollah, which the U.S. has imposed new sanctions on recently as part of its maximum pressure against Iran.
"A third of our people are not terrorists. We reject the idea of isolating some of our people," said Bassil, in an apparent reference to the Shiite community that makes nearly a third of the country's population.
Later Sunday, protesters closed a main highway north of Beirut and other street intersections, saying they will not stop their campaign until all their demands are met.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned Tuesday, meeting a key demand of the protesters, but many are calling for more sweeping change. The government proposed a vague roadmap last month aimed at improving the economy, fighting corruption and replacing the sectarian political system with a civil state, but the protests have continued.
Aoun must now hold consultations with parliamentary blocs before appointing a new prime minister, but that process could take weeks or even months judging by past experience, and protesters are worried it would leave the same political figures in place. Lebanon's sectarian parties are run by powerful families that include many former warlords.
Under the current system, Lebanon's president has to be a Maronite Christian, the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni. Cabinet and parliament seats are equally split between Muslims and Christians.