Iran’s move to produce uranium metal dims hopes of diplomatic breakthrough

The UN nuclear watchdog said last week that the material could be used in a nuclear device

This photo released on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. Iran announced on Monday that had started gas injection into a 30-machine cascade of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in Natanz complex. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Iran's latest move to produce uranium metal has drawn condemnation from its partners in the 2015 nuclear deal, as Washington seems in no rush to re-enter the agreement — as long as Tehran doesn’t return to full compliance.

The UN nuclear watchdog said on Wednesday that Iran has started producing uranium metal, in a fresh breach of the limits laid out in the 2015 deal which aims to ensure Tehran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon.

This came amid hopes that the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) over Tehran's nuclear ambitions could be revived through new talks under the administration of US President Joe Biden, after his predecessor Donald Trump walked out of the deal in 2018.

But now "in escalating its non-compliance, Iran is undermining the opportunity for renewed diplomacy to fully realise the objectives of the JCPOA," Britain, France and Germany said in a statement on Friday.

"We reiterate that Iran has no credible civilian justification for these activities, which are a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon," the statement by the three countries said.

It said that under the nuclear deal, Iran committed not to engage in producing or acquiring uranium metal for 15 years.

"We strongly urge Iran to halt these activities without delay and not to take any new non-compliant steps on its nuclear programme," the statement said.

Reacting to Friday's statement, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said it was not up to Iran to make the first move after the US pullout and accused the three European countries of not doing enough to realise the nuclear deal.

"By what logic is the onus on IRAN to stop its remedial measures undertaken a full year after the US withdrew from – and continues to violate – the JCPOA? What have E3 done to fulfil their duties?" he asked on Twitter.

The nuclear deal aimed to provide a gradual lifting of international sanctions against Iran in exchange for safeguards Tehran would not seek a nuclear weapon.

But it has been essentially moribund since the US pulled out, with Tehran stepping up its nuclear work in violation of the accord as retaliation.