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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announces another break from nuclear deal

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Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani arrives to address the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 25, 2019.

Carlo Allegri | Reuters

Iran’s president announced on Tuesday that Tehran will begin injecting uranium gas into 1,044 centrifuges, the latest step away from its nuclear deal with world powers since President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord over a year ago.

The development is significant as the centrifuges previously spun empty, without gas injection, under the landmark 2015 nuclear accord. It also increases pressure on European nations that remain in the accord, which at this point has all but collapsed.

In his announcement, President Hassan Rouhani did not say whether the centrifuges, which are at its nuclear facility in Fordo, would be used to produce enriched uranium. The centrifuges would be injected with the uranium gas as of Wednesday, Rouhani said.

His remarks, carried live on Iranian state television, came a day after Tehran’s nuclear program chief said the country had doubled the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation.

There was no immediate reaction from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog now monitoring Iran’s compliance with the deal. The European Union on Monday called on Iran to return to the deal, while the White House sanctioned members of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s inner circle as part of its maximalist campaign against Tehran.

Rouhani stressed the steps taken so far, including going beyond the deal’s enrichment and stockpile limitations, could be reversed if Europe offers a way for it to avoid U.S. sanctions choking off its crude oil sales abroad.

“We should be able to sell our oil,” Rouhani said. “We should be able to bring our money” into the country.

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The centrifuges at Fordo are IR-1s, Iran’s first-generation centrifuge. The nuclear deal allowed those at Fordo to spin without uranium gas, while allowing up to 5,060 at its Natanz facility to enrich uranium.

A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. An IR-6 centrifuge can produce enriched uranium 10 times faster than an IR-1, Iranian officials say.

Iranian scientists also are working on a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50-times faster than the IR-1, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akhbar Salehi said Monday.

As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. At the 4.5% level, it is enough to help power Iran’s Bushehr reactor, the country’s only nuclear power plant. Prior to the atomic deal, Iran only reached up to 20%.

Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilograms (11 pounds), Salehi said. Iran now holds over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, Salehi said. The deal had limited Iran to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).

The collapse of the nuclear deal coincided with a tense summer of mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied the allegation, though it did seize oil tankers and shoot down a U.S. military surveillance drone.

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