Tehran, Jun 18 (AP/UNB) — Iran will surpass the uranium-stockpile limit set by its nuclear deal in the next 10 days, an official said Monday, raising pressure on Europeans trying to save the accord a year after the U.S. withdrawal lit the fuse for the heightened tensions now between Tehran and Washington.
Hours later, the two countries seemed locked in a standoff when the Pentagon announced it was sending about 1,000 additional American troops to the Middle East to bolster security in the region in the face of what U.S. officials said was a growing threat from Iran.
The earlier announcement by Iran's nuclear agency marked yet another deadline set by Tehran. President Hassan Rouhani already has warned Europe that a new deal needs to be in place by July 7 or the Islamic Republic would increase its enrichment of uranium.
Atomic energy spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi suggested that Iran's enrichment could reach up to 20%, just a step away from weapons-grade levels.
It appears as if Iran has begun its own maximum pressure campaign on the world after facing one from President Donald Trump's administration that deeply cut into its sale of crude oil abroad and sent its economy into freefall. Europe has so far been unable to offer Iran a way around the U.S. sanctions.
The development follows apparent attacks last week in the Strait of Hormuz on oil tankers, assaults that Washington has blamed on Iran. While Iran has denied being involved, it laid mines in the 1980s targeting oil tankers around the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of the world's crude oil passes.
"If this condition continues, there will be no deal" anymore, Kamalvandi said. He accused the Europeans of "killing time" as the clock runs down.
Rouhani, greeting France's new ambassador to Tehran on Monday, similarly warned that time was running out on the deal.
"The current situation is very critical and France and the other parties to the (deal) still have a very limited opportunity to play their historic role for saving the deal," Rouhani said, according to his website.
The Iranian announcement appeared timed to strike just as European foreign ministers met in Luxembourg. Federica Mogherini, the European Union's top diplomat, declined to specifically address the Iranian announcement.
"At the moment, as of today, Iran is still technically compliant and we strongly hope, encourage and expect that Iran continues to comply," Mogherini told journalists. She insisted she would await the next report on the issue from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Under terms of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Iran can keep a stockpile of no more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of low-enriched uranium. Kamalvandi said that given Iran's recent decision to quadruple its production of low-enriched uranium, it would pass the 300-kilogram limit on Thursday, June 27.
The Vienna-based IAEA said last month that Iran remained within its stockpile limits and declined to comment on Iran's announcement. Kamalvandi said Iran would continue to allow the U.N. to inspect its nuclear facilities for the time being.
He also raised the specter of increasing its enrichment levels, saying Iran needs 5% enriched uranium for its nuclear power plant in southern Iranian port of Bushehr and 20% enriched fuel for its Tehran research reactor.
The nuclear deal limits Iran to enriching uranium only to 3.67%, enough for power plants and other peaceful purposes.
But after America pulled out of the nuclear accord and escalated sanctions, Rouhani set a July 7 deadline for Europe to come up with better terms for the deal or Tehran would boost enrichment further. So far, a European mechanism called INSTEX to protect trade with Iran has yet to take off.
The danger, nuclear nonproliferation experts warn, is that at 20% enrichment, only a fraction of atoms need to be removed to enrich up to weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the 2015 deal grew out of Western concerns about the program.
Under the accord, Iran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Since Trump took office, the U.S. has steadily stripped away at the accord, and he pulled America out of the deal in May 2018.
However, Iran's announcement that it was on the verge of surpassing the uranium-stockpile limit set by the nuclear agreement put the U.S. is the awkward position of having to push Iran to abide by the deal Trump has disparaged.
"It's unfortunate that they have made this announcement today," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. "It doesn't surprise anybody and this is why the president has often said that the JCPOA needs to be replaced with a better deal."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the international community should reinstate sanctions if Iran follows through on its threats, adding: "In any case, Israel will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons."
Tensions have risen in the region since last month. The U.S. rushed an aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the Middle East in response to what it said were threats from Iran. On Monday, the Pentagon said it would send additional security forces and troops for increased surveillance and intelligence gathering in the region.
Meanwhile, a series of mysterious attacks have targeted oil tankers, and the U.S. blames Iranian-laid limpet mines. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen also have launched a series of drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon on Monday released new photos intended to bolster its case that Iran was responsible for the attacks.
Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which the U.S. suspects in the attacks, answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and operates outside of the traditional military's control.
Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, the chief of the general staff of Iran's armed forces, denied Tehran was involved in the tanker attacks, saying Monday the country only would respond in "an open, strong and severe way" if needed.
But he also reiterated Iran's traditional stance on the Strait of Hormuz.
"If we decide to block the Strait of Hormuz, we will to do it in a way that even a drop of oil won't pass the strait," Bagheri added.
Kamalvandi spoke to Iranian journalists at the country's Arak heavy water nuclear reactor. Such reactors produce plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons. Iran, under the nuclear deal, had reconfigured the facility to address Western concerns on that issue.
However, Kamalvandi said the country could rebuild the facility to make it produce plutonium. He made a point to give an interview to Iranian state television, standing next to the open pit where the reactor would be in the facility.
As the camera panned down to what would be the reactor's core, Kamalvandi stressed that piping could be replaced and the reactor could be built to make plutonium. Hard-liners opposed to the nuclear deal had constantly accused the agency of filling the entire pit with concrete.
"They had previously photoshopped a picture of this place having been filled up with concrete," Kamalvandi said.
He added: "The message that we tried to get across to Europeans today was that not much time is left for them."
Tehran, Jun 17 (AP/UNB) — Iran will break the uranium stockpile limit set by Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in the next 10 days, the spokesman for the country's atomic agency said Monday while also warning that Iran has the need for uranium enriched up to 20%, just a step away from weapons-grade levels.
The announcement indicated Iran's determination to break from the landmark 2015 accord, which has steadily unraveled since the Trump administration pulled America out of the deal last year and re-imposed tough economic sanctions on Iran, sending its economy into freefall.
The spokesman for Iran's nuclear agency, Behrouz Kamalvandi, made the announcement during a press conference with local journalists at Iran's Arak heavy water facility that was carried live on Iranian state television.
The development comes in the wake of suspected attacks on oil tankers last week in the region, attacks that Washington has blamed on Iran, and also as tensions have spiked between Iran and the United States, a year after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America for the nuclear deal.
The deal was meant to keep Tehran from building atomic weapons in exchange for economic incentives.
But Trump's pullout and the U.S. campaign of sanctions hammering Iran's anemic economy and blocking its sale of oil on the global market only made life worse, putting further pressure on Iran's Shiite theocracy and its 80 million people.
Kamalvandi acknowledged that the country already quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium and said Tehran would increase uranium enrichment levels "based on the country's needs."
That increase could be to any level, from 3.67% which is the current limit set by the nuclear deal.
Iran's needs 5% enrichment for its nuclear power plant in southern Iranian port of Bushehr and it also needs 20% enrichment for a Tehran research reactor, the spokesman said.
In May, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned the country would enrich its uranium stockpile closer to weapons-grade levels in 60 days if world powers fail to negotiate new terms for the nuclear deal.
When uranium is mined, it typically has about 140 atoms of an unwanted isotope for every atom of U-235. Refining it to a purity of 3.67%, the level now allowed by the nuclear deal, means removing 114 unwanted atoms of U-238 for every atom of U-235.
Boosting its purity to 20% means removing 22 more unwanted isotopes per atom of U-235, while going from there to 90% purity means removing just four more per atom of U-235. Ninety percent is considered weapons-grade material.
That means going from 20% to 90% is a relatively quicker process, something that worries nuclear nonproliferation experts.
The U.S. alleges Iran used limpet mines to target the tankers last Thursday, pointing to black-and-white footage it captured that American officials describe as an Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel removing an unexploded mine from the Japanese-operated tanker Kokuka Courageous, one of the two ships that were targeted.
The Japanese tanker's crewmembers appeared to contradict the assertion that mines were used. They described "flying objects" as having targeted the vessel.
Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated the U.S. official position. He claimed that intelligence officials have "lots of data, lots of evidence" tying Iran to the attacks, though he did not provide any specifics. He called the alleged shipping attacks "an international challenge, important to the entire globe."
In Brussels on Monday, European Union foreign ministers said they were still looking for more information on who might be behind the incident involving the tankers. Germany and others insisted they need a clearer picture before wading into a diplomatic conflict which could have serious implications in the Middle East.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that U.S. and British intelligence needs to be compared with other information from allies. "We have to be very careful," he said.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said it was not a time to jump to action without proper information. "The maximum restraint and wisdom should be applied," she said ahead of the monthly foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg.
Damascus, Jun 17 (AP/UNB) — Syrian state media say insurgents fired rockets into residential parts of the northern Aleppo province, killing at least 12 civilians and wounding 15.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that four children were among those killed.
The rocket attack took place late on Sunday in the village of Wadehi, in the Aleppo countryside, which abuts the last rebel-held enclave in northwestern Syria.
Fighting has raged over the last seven weeks in northwestern Syria as government forces pressed an offensive toward the last rebel stronghold in the country's eight-year civil war.
The violence has displaced hundreds of thousands inside the rebel enclave, which is home to 3 million people, most of them already displaced from earlier violence in Syria.
United Arab Emirates, June 17 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in remarks published Sunday that the kingdom will not hesitate to confront Iranian threats to its security. He joined the U.S. in accusing its bitter rival Iran of being behind the attacks on two oil tankers traveling near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital trade route for Arabian energy exports.
Tensions in the Persian Gulf have escalated since the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the region in what it says is defensive posturing against alleged Iranian threats. The crisis takes root in the Trump Administration's decision to re-impose punishing economic sanctions on Tehran and its oil exports, after unilaterally withdrawing the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
The U.S. alleges Iran used limpet mines to target the tankers on Thursday, pointing to black-and-white footage it captured that American officials describe as an Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel removing an unexploded mine from the Japanese-operated tanker Kokuka Courageous.
The Japanese tanker's crewmembers appeared to contradict the assertion that mines were used. They described "flying objects" as having targeted the vessel.
In his first public comments regarding the attacks, the powerful Saudi prince, who is also defense minister and oversees all major levers of power in the country, said the incident "confirms the importance of our demands of the international community to take a decisive stance" against Iran's behavior.
"The kingdom does not seek war in the region," the prince said, speaking with the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. "But we will not hesitate to deal with any threat to our people, sovereignty and vital interests."
The prince claimed Iran had planned the attack's timing to undercut the Japanese prime minister's diplomatic efforts, during his visit to Tehran last week, to reduce regional tensions.
He did not offer any evidence to back up the allegation.
"The problem is in Tehran and not anywhere else," he added. "Iran is always the party that's escalating in the region, carrying out terrorist attacks and criminal attacks either directly or through its militias."
Prince Mohammed touted U.S.-Saudi relations as "essential to achieving regional security and stability."
Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated the U.S. official position. He claimed that intelligence officials have "lots of data, lots of evidence" tying Iran to the attacks, though he did not provide any specifics. He called the alleged shipping attacks "an international challenge, important to the entire globe."
He said Trump was following an "economic pressure campaign" against Iran but "we do not want war." He added that the "unambiguous" object of U.S. actions was that Iran would not get nuclear weapons.
Iran rejects accusations it was responsible for Thursday's attacks, saying it stands ready to play an active and constructive role in ensuring the security of maritime passages. It said the massive U.S. military presence in the region and U.S. sanctions are the main sources of insecurity and instability in the Persian Gulf.
Thursday's incidents forced the evacuation of all 44 sailors aboard the two vessels. On Saturday, Associated Press journalists saw the crew members of the Norwegian-owned oil tanker MT Front Altair arrive at Dubai International Airport, after spending two days in Iran.
The Front Altair, which caught fire after the apparent attack, limped into anchorage Sunday off the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates, near the port city of Khorfakkan.
Similar to the recent attacks, four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were apparently targeted in acts of sabotage last month, which U.S. officials have also blamed on Iran. Two of those vessels belonged to Saudi Arabia.
Iranian-allied Yemeni rebels, known as Houthis, have also claimed they were behind a missile strike on a Saudi airport in the city of Abha that the kingdom said wounded 26 passengers. The Houthis also carried out a drone strike last month on a key Saudi oil pipeline
Dubai, Jun 16 (AP/UNB) -The Norwegian-owned oil tanker Front Altair, which caught fire after being apparently attacked last week in the Gulf of Oman, has arrived off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
The ship's position was some 20 miles off the coast of the Emirati port city of Khorfakkan on Sunday.
The Front Altair caught fire after the attack Thursday, sending a thick cloud of black smoke visible even by satellite from space.
On Saturday, Associated Press journalists saw the crew members of Front Altair after their Iran Air flight from Bandar Abbas, Iran, landed at Dubai International Airport.
The U.S. has blamed Iran for what it described as an attack with limpet mines on the two tankers. Tehran rejects the allegation, instead accusing the U.S. under President Donald Trump of pursuing an "Iranophobic" campaign against it.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says the kingdom isn't seeking war in the region, but won't hesitate to deal with any threats to its people and vital interests.
In his first public remarks since attacks last month on oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, the powerful Saudi prince accused Iran of using militias to destabilize the region.
He said the attacks days earlier on vessels in the Gulf of Oman, as well as on an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia and a civilian airport in the kingdom's southern city of Abha, "confirm the importance of our demands of the international community to take a decisive stance" against Iran's behavior.
He made the remarks in an interview published Sunday by the pan-Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.
Yemen's Houthi rebels say they've launched a new drone attack against Saudi Arabia. The kingdom says it shot down one Houthi drone.
The Houthi's Al-Masirah satellite news channel announced the attack late Saturday night. Yahia al-Sarie, a Houthi spokesman, said their drones targeted airports in Jizan and Abha in Saudi Arabia.
Early Sunday, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said it shot down a drone near the Abha regional airport.
A statement from spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki did not address the Houthi claim regarding a drone attack on Jizan.
The Houthis say they launched a cruise missile that struck the Abha airport Wednesday. Saudi Arabia says that attack wounded 26 people.