Iran was on Thursday poised to begin work on advanced centrifuges that would enrich uranium faster as the 2015 nuclear deal unravels further and a last-minute French proposal offering a US$15 billion line of credit to compensate Iran for not being able to sell its crude oil abroad because of US sanctions looked increasingly unlikely.
Meanwhile, Iran released seven crew members from detained British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero in a goodwill gesture and the mariners flew out of Iran, the ship’s owner said.
The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) news agency reported late on Thursday that Iran would halt its commitments on research and development as its most recent step to move away from the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
The report did not elaborate and said that further details would be announced later.
IRNA said the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the move from a detail in a letter from Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini.
Iran had yet to say officially what exact steps it plans to take as a deadline it gave Europeans to salvage the deal expired yesterday.
However, centrifuges that speed uranium enrichment would further shorten the time Tehran would need to have enough material available to build a nuclear weapon — if it chose to do so.
Under the deal, which has steadily unraveled after US President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the US from the accord last year, experts thought Iran would need about a year to reach that point.
Iran’s atomic energy agency is expected to make an announcement today detailing its next step, which Iranian President Hassan Rouhani described as highly significant, according to Tasnim news agency and other Iranian media.
The details would be unveiled at a news conference in Tehran, the reports said.
The US has continued its effort to choke off Iran’s crude oil sales abroad, a crucial source of government revenue.
Zarif, who continues a whirlwind global diplomatic tour, insists his country plans to do everything it can to keep those sales going, although he described US sanctions in an angry tweet on Thursday as the equivalent of a “jail warden.”
“We will sell our oil, one way or the other,” Zarif told Russian broadcaster RT in a recently aired interview. “The United States will not be able to prevent that.”
Tensions between Iran and the US have been growing since Trump’s pullout from the nuclear deal, which saw Tehran agree to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Trump subsequently re-imposed old sanctions on Iran and created new ones, going as far as targeting Iranian officials like Zarif and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Meanwhile, mysterious oil tanker attacks struck near the Strait of Hormuz in the past few weeks, attacks that the US blames on Iran. Tehran denies it was involved.
Iran also shot down a US military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers as the US deployed nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, advanced fighter jets and more troops to the region.
The US has sought to seize an Iranian oil tanker, the Adrian Darya-1, now thought by analysts to be off the Syrian coast despite a pledge by Tehran that its cargo was not bound there.
In his speech late on Wednesday, Rouhani said that Tehran would soon begin work on research and development of “all kinds” of centrifuges that enrich uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas.
Iran has begun breaking limits of the nuclear deal, such as just creeping beyond its 3.67 percent-enrichment limit and its stockpile rules.
Using advanced centrifuges speeds up enrichment and Iranian officials already have raised the idea of enriching to 20 percent — a small technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.
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