DUBAI — Iran will surpass the internationally agreed limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpiles in 10 days, the country's atomic energy body said Monday.
A spokesperson for the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization said that the country would increase enrichment levels to 20% — significantly closer to weapons-grade material — for use in local reactors, but emphasized that Europe still had a chance to rescue the 2015 nuclear deal if its remaining signatories found a way to shield the Islamic Republic from the crippling effect of U.S. economic sanctions.
"We have quadrupled the rate of enrichment and even increased it more recently, so that in 10 days it will bypass the 300 kilogram limit," Iran's Atomic Energy Organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said on state TV, as quoted by Reuters. "There is still time ... if European countries act."
Iran would be exceeding its internationally-agreed enrichment cap of 3.67%, which is the amount allowed for civilian nuclear power development. Weapons-grade enrichment is 90%, but according to nuclear experts, reaching 3 to 4% enrichment equates to roughly two-thirds of the work done toward that 90% figure, as any increases beyond that seemingly small amount disproportionately speeds up breakout time.
Tehran is threatening to roll back its obligations under the nuclear deal a year after the Trump administration withdrew from it and reimposed punishing sanctions on the Iranian economy, most significantly its oil sector, the country's largest source of revenue.
The nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was meant to offer Iran financial relief from sanctions in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program and was signed under the Obama administration along with the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K., Russia and China.
The deal's non-U.S. signatories opposed the Trump administration's withdrawal and have pledged to keep the deal alive, even going so far as creating a special-purpose vehicle that could facilitate trade with Iran while skirting U.S. secondary sanctions.
Iran's Atomic Energy Organization spokesman said Monday that European leaders needed to "act, not talk."
The announcement comes just days after suspected attacks against two foreign tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which U.S. authorities have blamed on Iran. The tanker explosion site lies near the critical shipping lane that is the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow conduit for 30% of the world's seaborne oil.
The events, which sent oil prices up as high as 4% and led the ships' crews to abandon their crippled vessels, came just a month after four oil tankers were damaged in alleged sabotage missions also attributed by the U.S. to Iran. Tehran denies all the accusations, alleging that Washington aims to stoke "Iranophobia" and find an excuse to go to war.
A rapid escalation in tensions has stoked fears of impending conflict between the U.S. and its Gulf allies and the Islamic Republic, though both sides say they don't want war. Washington has ramped up its military presence in the region, with additional aircraft carriers, bomber tank forces and planned deployments of thousands more troops. A slight miscalculation or miscommunication, many believe, could risk sparking all-out conflict.
The U.K. government reacted to Iran's announcement Monday, warning that it would consider "all options" in response to a breach of the 2015 deal.
"We have been clear about our concern at Iranian plans to reduce compliance with the JCPOA," a spokesman for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said. "Should Iran cease meeting its nuclear commitments, we would then look at all options available to us."
A German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman urged Iranian leaders to uphold the deal.
European foreign ministers have been urging restraint and have not yet made their conclusions as to who was behind the tanker attacks of the previous week, though U.K. Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said last week that Iran's military was "almost certainly" responsible.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meeting with France's new ambassador to Iran in Tehran, said, "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."
"There is no doubt that the collapse of the (agreement) will not be beneficial for Iran, France, the region and the world."