Iran begins Fordow enrichment in major nuclear deal rollback

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BEIRUT (Nov 6): Iran has begun the process of enriching uranium at its Fordow research plant, in the most dramatic rollback of its commitments under its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.

About 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds) of uranium hexafluoride gas were brought to the facility on Wednesday, under the watch of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations watchdog, Iranian state news agencies reported.

By Saturday, the level of uranium enrichment will reach 4.5%, according to Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. The organization also said that last week, it prevented a UN inspector from entering the Natanz testing facility, another uranium enrichment site, because she was carrying “suspicious material” that had set off alarms.

The renewed activities at Fordow will add to a stockpile of enriched uranium that has already exceeded caps.

“The decision to expand nuclear activities at Fordow is Iran’s most serious violation of the nuclear deal to date,” Eurasia Group said in a report. “Iran’s latest violation represents a significant escalation, not a continuation of incremental steps away from its nuclear commitments.”

Even so, the work at Fordow doesn’t mark a qualitative leap because Iran has already been enriching to 4.5%. That’s above the 3.67% purity level set down in the deal, but far from the 90% needed for weapons, or the 20% level required for research reactors.

Tehran began gradually retreating from the 2015 accord after U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement last year and reimposed crippling sanctions, rendering the pact barely functional. European signatories say they remain committed but have struggled to devise a mechanism that wouldn’t expose European companies to U.S. penalties, if they trade with the Islamic Republic.

While Iran acknowledges it’s breached limits set under the pact, it rejects that it has violated the accord. That’s because the document allows participants to cease meeting commitments “in whole or in part” in the event of an unresolved dispute. Tehran argues that Europe has an obligation to help it avoid the new U.S. penalties.

The standoff over the deal has provoked tit-for-tat attacks on Gulf oil facilities, drones and shipping traffic that has raised fears of a new military confrontation in the Middle East.