Iran's supreme leader said Monday the Islamic republic could boost uranium enrichment to 60 percent if needed, hours before new limits on inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog went into force.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s remarks came ahead of a deadline fixed by Iran‘s parliament to limit some inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) unless US sanctions were lifted by Sunday.
Later, Iran’s ambassador to the UN agency, Kazem Gharibabadi, said the new limitations would take effect as of midnight (2030 GMT).
“The necessary instructions have been issued to the nuclear facilities,” he said.
On Sunday, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi held last-ditch talks in Tehran, where the two sides hammered out a temporary technical deal for up to three months that meets the parliament’s demands.
The US voiced concern Monday over the temporary arrangement, urging Iran to comply “fully” with verification of its nuclear programme.
The deal comes as Tehran, US President Joe Biden and European powers try to salvage the troubled 2015 nuclear accord, which granted Iran international sanctions relief in return for restrictions on its nuclear programme.
The accord has been nearing collapse since former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018, reimposing crippling sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign.
Tehran responded a year later by starting to gradually roll back on key commitments. Early this year it boosted uranium enrichment back to 20 percent, the level it had reached before the nuclear deal.
The Islamic republic has repeatedly denied seeking to build nuclear weapons, a point Khamenei reiterated in comments posted on his official website Monday.
“We will act to the point that is needed and the country requires,” he said, adding that “we could bring enrichment to 60 percent” for nuclear propellants and other purposes.
That would far surpass the 3.67 percent limit Iran had accepted under the 2015 deal, but still be short of the 90 percent or so required for an atomic bomb.
“The Islamic republic will not back down on the nuclear issue and will strongly continue down the path of what the country requires for today and tomorrow,” Khamenei said.
He stressed that the United States was the party that had left the deal and emphasised that Iran’s suspension of its commitments “are still reversible” if Washington returns to its own.
The United States and Iran have been bitter enemies for four decades, and Washington accuses Iran of destabilising the region through support for Shiite Muslim militant groups, especially in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Their animosity deepened under Trump, who denied Iran crucial oil revenues and cut it off from global banking, exacerbating its deep economic woes.
Under Trump, the United States and Iran came to the brink of war several times, most recently early last year after a US drone strike in Baghdad killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
Biden has signalled readiness to revive the deal but insists Iran first return to all its nuclear commitments. Tehran demands Washington take the first step by scrapping the sanctions.
Iran’s parliament late last year demanded that Tehran this week limit some inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by Tuesday if sanctions were not lifted by two days before.
Under the deal struck by Grossi, Iran will continue to allow UN inspectors to access its declared nuclear sites.
But it will temporarily suspend so-called “voluntary transparency measures” — notably inspections of non-nuclear sites including military sites suspected of nuclear-related activity.
Tehran will also deny the IAEA real-time access to footage from surveillance cameras installed at some sites and, if sanctions are not lifted within three months, delete it, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization has said.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday praised Grossi’s mission to Tehran, “while also reiterating the call on Iran to fully meet its verification and other nuclear non-proliferation commitments”.
Not ‘flying blind’
Grossi said that under the temporary understanding “there is less access”, but that the IAEA will be able to “retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work”.
The last-minute deal had prevented the IAEA from “flying blind”, he said, adding that now “political discussions at other levels can take place”.
Iran’s foreign ministry said the outcome complied with parliament’s demands and “resulted in a very significant diplomatic achievement and a very significant technical achievement”.
Russia also welcomed the deal as “a tangible positive contribution” to restarting talks on Washington’s return to the 2015 deal.
Khamenei also took a swipe at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, which Tehran blames for sabotage attacks on its nuclear programme.
“That clown of the Zionist regime keeps saying that we won’t let Iran have nuclear weapons,” the Ayatollah said.
“If the Islamic republic had meant to gain nuclear weapons, he and those mightier than him could not stop it.
But, he insisted: “Islamic thought and principles” prevent Iran from seeking weapons of mass destruction.