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ANALYSIS

Iran's nuclear standoff is about to enter a perilous new phase

Iranians march beneath Iranian national flag design bunting during celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, Iran, on Feb. 11, 2019.

ALI MOHAMMADI/BLOOMBERG

By JONATHAN TIRONE | Bloomberg | Published: June 23, 2019

Iran is set to breach a cap on its enriched-uranium stockpile within days, potentially pushing its conflict with the U.S. into a dangerous new phase.

Limiting the volume and purity of its accumulated uranium was a central part of Iran's nuclear deal with world powers in 2015. The U.S. abandoned the deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions. President Donald Trump said Saturday he'll impose "major" additional U.S. penalties on Monday.

While Trump announced the sanctions, days after Iran shot down a U.S. Navy drone, he didn't provide details. In his Twitter post Trump specified the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, echoing comments made to reporters at the White House on Saturday.

"All I want is no nuclear weapons," Trump said. "Let me just tell you, they're not going to have a nuclear weapon."

In a move foreshadowed by Iranian leaders for weeks, the cap set on the country's stockpile of enriched uranium could be broken by Thursday, a day before negotiators from the countries, mostly European, still committed to the accord meet in Vienna.

"If Iran's leadership comes to the conclusion that it has no choice other than talking to Washington, it will do so only after it has resuscitated its leverage," said Ali Vaez, a director at the International Crisis Group. "This means that the path to new negotiations passes through another perilous nuclear standoff."

Iran eliminated some 97 percent of its enriched uranium to comply with the nuclear agreement with China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and U.S. The country previously had enough material to build more than a dozen bombs. While Iran has always said its program is civilian, world powers pursued the deal because they doubted that claim.

Iran's president signaled on May 8 that the country would soon violate terms of the agreement unless European governments, which haven't pulled out of the deal, guarantee the trade it envisages.

Five weeks later, Iran said it would increase the rate of enrichment. Barring policy change or mechanical breakdown, Iran could accumulate the volume of material needed to build a weapon by the end of the year.

"While Iran's frustration with Trump's reckless pressure campaign is understandable, we strongly urge Iran to remain in compliance with the nuclear deal," Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington nonprofit, said by email.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration's policy toward Iran has "increased the risk of a new nuclear crisis," he said.

The association estimates Iran would need about 1,050 kilograms (2,315 pounds) of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent to build one bomb. The material would then need to undergo further enrichment. The nuclear deal was designed to prevent Iran from breaking out and constructing a weapon within a year.

International Atomic Energy Agency monitors said last month that Iran has met its obligations. Diplomats from the countries remaining in the accord will meet June 28 to discuss "Iran's announcement regarding the implementation of its nuclear commitments."

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