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Iran rolling back nuclear curbs under pact now abandoned by Washington

London

IRAN announced on Wednesday it was scaling back curbs to its nuclear programme under a 2015 deal with world powers, and threatened to do more - including enriching uranium to a higher level - if countries did not shield it from US sanctions.

A year after Washington pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, President Hassan Rouhani unveiled measures that do not appear to violate the deal's terms yet, but could do so in the future if Iran were to persist on the course he set out.

Mr Rouhani said Teheran would halt a programme to sell excess enriched uranium and heavy water to other countries, an arrangement used under the nuclear deal to keep its own stockpiles below permitted caps.

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And he threatened that in 60 days Iran would resume enrichment of uranium beyond the low level permitted under the deal, unless the five other powers signed up to it find a way to protect Iran's oil and banking industries from US sanctions.

"If the five countries come to the negotiating table and we reach an agreement, and if they could protect our interests in the oil and banking sectors, we will go back to square one," Mr Rouhani said.

"The Iranian people and the world should know that today is not the end of the JCPOA," he said, using the acronym for the nuclear deal. "These are actions in line with the JCPOA." The 2015 deal was signed between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions.

Washington's European allies opposed President Donald Trump's decision to pull out. They have tried to find ways to blunt the economic impact of new US sanctions in the hope of persuading Teheran to continue to abide by it. However, their efforts have largely failed, with all major European companies abandoning plans to do business with Iran for fear of US punishment.

France's Defence Minister said she wanted to keep the nuclear deal alive and warned Iran it could face more sanctions if it did not honour its part of the deal. "Today nothing would be worse than Iran, itself, leaving this agreement," said Florence Parly.

China said the agreement should be implemented and called on all sides to avoid an escalation of tensions. The weeks leading up to the anniversary of Trump's withdrawal from the agreement have seen a sharp tightening of US sanctions and an increase in tensions on other fronts.

From this month, Washington has effectively ordered countries around the world to stop buying any Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own, revoking waivers that had allowed some countries to continue buying Iranian oil. It says it aims to reduce Iranian crude exports to zero.

Washington has also blacklisted Iran's Revolutionary Guards force as a terrorist organisation and Iran responded with threats to close the Gulf's Strait of Hormuz if its ships were blocked there.

Washington announced the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Gulf to counter what it says are Iranian threats. Teheran says the USS Abraham Lincoln is replacing another carrier that had already left the area under a scheduled rotation, and calls the announcement "psychological warfare" based on old news. REUTERS