“For nuclear propulsion or other works, we may enrich up to 60 per cent,” Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying during a meeting with senior officials on Monday.
Uranium enriched at above 90 per cent can be used to fuel an atomic bomb. Iran currently produces reactor-grade uranium enriched to no more than five per cent purity and a small quantity enriched up to 20 per cent, enough to produce medical isotopes.
The threats by Mr Khamenei come at a particularly sensitive time. Iran over the weekend agreed to let cameras record goings-on at some of its most sensitive nuclear sites, but may withhold the footage from international inspectors for up to three months, and possibly destroy it forever if the United States and other world powers fail to offer it sanctions relief, under the terms of a last-minute deal meant to stave off a potential crisis.
The agreement worked out by the International Atomic Energy Agency director general Rafael Grossi at an emergency meeting in Tehran on Sunday may face resistance from hawks in both Iran and the United States.
“What we see now is a bit of a reprieve,” said Matthew Moran, professor of international security at King’s College. “The window of opportunity is still there. It’s perhaps shrinking, but there is still space for an agreement.”
In his speech, Mr Khamenei upped the pressure. Though he insisted Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons, he said that no world power could stop it if it opted to pursue them.
“What prevents the Islamic Republic from building a nuclear weapon is the Islamic thought and principles that prohibit the construction of any weapon, whether nuclear or chemical, that kills ordinary people,” he said.
But he notably did not speak out against the deal made with the IAEA, and urged those in the Iranian establishment who disagree with it to work out their differences with the government.
The last-minute agreement is loaded with highly technical adjustments regarding the ability of the team’s inspectors to monitor Iran’s nuclear sites. Many of the crucial details will be included in a “technical annex” that will not be publicly released. It remains unclear whether inspectors will still be able to request snap inspections of nuclear sites, including facilities used to design atomic technology.
As demanded by Iran’s parliament, Tehran will no longer formally abide by the highly intrusive terms of the 2015 nuclear deal forged with the US, Russia, China and European nations. But the temporary agreement leaves open the possibility to return to the deal.
“The question is what is the sum total of what Iran and the IAEA agreed to,” said Eric Brewer, a former White House National Security Council official now at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“There are a lot of questions. Are they still going to do those kinds of visits and collect samples at facilities that are not declared? Does the IAEA still have the ability to request short-notice access? Which facilities does it include?”
The nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), required Iran to allow snap inspections of almost all of its nuclear sites not included under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory.
Former US president Donald Trump abandoned the JCPOA and imposed a global economic blockade on Iran as part of a policy of “maximum pressure”, an attempt to force Tehran to halt its nuclear technology pursuits and return to the negotiating table to come up with a better deal that might also include Iran’s missile programme and its support for armed groups throughout the Middle East.
Iran refused to reopen talks. After abiding by the terms of the deal for a year, it began to incrementally increase its stockpile of fissile material and expand its use of technology to more efficiently produce it.
The administration of US president Joe Biden has committed to return to the JCPOA but has said Iran must first come back into compliance before it removes sanctions. The team of negotiators, which includes veterans of the deal crafted under President Obama, must also contend with powerful bipartisan sceptics of the deal in Congress and influential foreign nations opposed to the JCPOA, including the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Iran insists the US must first remove sanctions before it comes back into full compliance, and has demanded reparations for financial losses incurred since the reimposition of sanctions.
Iranian officials are also struggling to placate surging hardliners within the establishment who argue that Tehran should never have signed up to the deal. June presidential elections could even further tip the balance in favour of the hardliners and against more pragmatist factions grouped around incumbent president Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Iranian parliamentarians on Monday were in an uproar over the deal hammered with the IAEA, insisting that Mr Rouhani’s administration has violated the law and demanding that the judiciary prosecute the president.
“Domestic politics has a huge role to play in terms of how Iran is responding, and the hardline narrative that the US withdrew from the deal under Trump and needs to make amends is a powerful one,” said Mr Moran. “The problem is, even if there’s an agreement, they will argue that the US cannot be trusted.”
Despite the mutual mistrust, both countries also appeared to be making small steps potentially aimed at building up momentum to re-embrace the JCPOA. South Korea, a US ally and consumer of Iranian oil, reportedly agreed on Monday to release up to $7bn in frozen Iranian funds with the likely tacit approval of Washington. The US has also said it would withdraw the Trump administration claim last year, rejected by almost every other nation in the world, that broad United Nations sanctions on Iran were back in place.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday that there had been “indirect communication” between Washington and Tehran about swapping dual-national Iranian Americans held on dubious national security charges in Iran for alleged violators of sanctions, arms trafficking laws, and money laundering laws being held by the US.
“Zarif’s proposal from two years ago regarding freeing Iranian prisoners in Iran in exchange for discharging the Americans sentenced in Iran is still in force,” Mr Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying.
Non-proliferation experts said Iran’s latest move should serve as a warning for diplomats to devote the next few weeks to working to salvage the JCPOA.
“I still don’t think this is a deal breaker,” Kelsey Davenport, of the Arms Control Association, said during a press briefing on Monday. “Any reduction is verification and inspections and monitoring is very concerning. It’s imperative that the US and Iran do not squander this three-month period.”
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