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Iran N-rollback stops short of violation – Russia urges Europe to comply with N-deal; China says US aggravates tension

FILE – In this March 30, 2005 file photo, an Iranian security official in protective clothing walks through part of the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the Iranian city of Isfahan. Iran threatened Wednesday, May 8, 2019, to resume higher enrichment of uranium in 60 days if world powers fail to negotiate new terms for its 2015 nuclear deal, an agreement that capped over a decade of hostility between Tehran and the West over its atomic program. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

LONDON, May 8, (Agencies): Iran announced on Wednesday it was relaxing some curbs to its nuclear programme, announcing steps that stop short of violating its 2015 deal with world powers for now, but threatening more action if countries do not shield it from US sanctions.

Hours later, the United States said it was not finished imposing sanctions on Iran and planned more “very soon”. It warned Europe against doing business with Tehran via a system of non-dollar trade to circumvent US sanctions. A year to the day after Washington exited the nuclear deal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced changes that experts said seemed tailored to ensure Tehran avoids triggering the deal’s mechanism to punish it for violations, at least for now. “For now, nothing changes, but this could be a ticking time bomb,” a European diplomat told Reuters.

The main new measure that takes effect now would have limited practical impact: a halt to Iran’s sales of enriched uranium and heavy water to other countries.

The deal allows such sales so Iran can keep reducing its stockpiles below maximum thresholds, but Washington already effectively barred the sales with a sanctions move last week.

For now, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is still well below the deal’s cap and heavy water is less sensitive. Rouhani also threatened that in 60 days Iran would resume enrichment of uranium beyond the low fissile purity – suitable for civilian nuclear power generation – allowed under the deal, unless the five other powers signed up to it found a way to protect Iran’s oil and banking industries from US sanctions.

“If the five countries came to the negotiating table and we reached an agreement, and if they could protect our interests in the oil and banking sectors, we will go back to square one,” Rouhani said in a televised address. “The Iranian people and the world should know that today is not the end of the JCPOA,” he said, using the acronym for the nuclear deal.

“These are actions in line with the JCPOA.” The 2015 accord was signed between Iran, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the United States, before President Donald Trump took office. Iran agreed to limits on its disputed nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions. Washington’s European allies opposed Trump’s decision to pull out and have tried, so far in vain, to find ways to blunt the economic impact of new US sanctions, which include an all-out effort to block Iran’s oil exports to throttle its economy.

France and Germany both said they wanted to keep the nuclear deal alive, and warned Iran not to violate it. “Our position remains that we want to stick by the agreement, especially to prevent Iran from gaining possession of a nuclear weapon,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, stressing the pact was crucial for European security.

Russia and Iran both blamed the United States for what they portrayed as Tehran’s forced decision to suspend some pledges under the nuclear deal, while putting the onus on European powers to guarantee sanctions relief for Iran.

The Kremlin accused Washington of provoking Iran’s move. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin had predicted consequences from the “unthought- out steps” of US withdrawal. “Now we are seeing those consequences.” China, blaming US for aggravating tension, said the deal should continue to be implemented and called on all sides to exercise restraint and pursue dialogue.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama, was flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s ballistic missile programme and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries. Tim Morrison, a special assistant to Trump and Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Biodefense, told a conference that Washington was not “done” with imposing sanctions on Iran. “Expect more sanctions soon. Very soon.”

Morrison said the United States would move quickly against any attempt by European countries to fray the US sanctions noose around Iran. He advised them not to use a so-called Special Purpose Vehicle to enable non-dollar trade with Iran. “If you are a bank, an investor, an insurer or other business in Europe you should know that getting involved in the … Special Purpose Vehicle is a very poor business decision,” Morrison said. Nuclear arms control experts said Iran’s steps announced on Wednesday appeared calibrated to avoid setting in motion renewed sanctions under a “snapback” mechanism in the 2015 accord. Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Iran was not yet close to exceeding its allowed stockpile limit of low-enriched uranium, and its heavy water stockpile was a comparatively minor issue. “Enriching (uranium) to 20 percent would surely spark sanctions, so I expect in 60 days there will be various ‘technical’ reasons why it can’t be done right away,” he said of Rouhani’s threat to exceed the enrichment purity limit to levels farther along the road toward high-enriched, bomb-grade uranium.

The weeks leading up to the anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement have seen a sharp tightening of US sanctions and an increase in tensions on other fronts. From this month, Washington has effectively ordered countries worldwide to stop buying Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.
The Trump administration has revoked waivers that had allowed some countries to continue buying Iranian oil and it aims to reduce Iranian crude exports to zero. Washington has also blacklisted Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group. Iran responded with threats to close the Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz – the conduit for about a third op the world’s seaborne oil exports – if its ships were blocked there.

B-52 bombers
The US military said on Tuesday that B-52 bombers will be part of additional forces being sent to the Middle East to counter what the Trump administration says are “clear indications” of threats from Iran to US forces there. White House national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday that the United States was deploying a carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East.

Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for US Central Command, said that the bomber task force would consist of B-52 bombers. US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said four B-52s would be deployed, though that number could change. The United States has regularly maintained a bomber presence in the region, and B-1 bombers were there as recently as last month.

The B-52 is a long-range, nuclear capable bomber. The military also confirmed that the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group had already been scheduled to go to the Middle East, but that its movement was “expedited” due to heightened tension with Iran. Iran’s top security body dismissed the US plan to send forces to the region as “psychological warfare.” Announcing details of the force on Tuesday, the US military did not provide specific details of intelligence it may have about an Iranian threat.

One US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there were indications that Iran appeared to be moving short-range ballistic missiles on boats in the Middle East.

Russia has reaffirmed commitment to the Iran nuclear deal and urged European partners to fulfill their obligations towards Iran as per the deal. European partners should fulfill their obligations towards Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters on Wednesday at a news conference following talks with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif. He reiterated Moscow and Tehran’s commitment to the JCPOA and the relevant UN Security Council resolution.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Tuesday and met Iraq’s prime minister and other top officials to discuss the safety of Americans in Iraq and explain US security concerns amid rising Iranian activity.

The visit came two days after US national security adviser John Bolton said the United States was deploying the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and a bomber task force to the region because of a “credible threat by Iranian regime forces”. Washington has ramped up sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program in recent months and designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. “We talked to them about the importance of Iraq ensuring that it’s able to adequately protect Americans in their country,” Pompeo told reporters after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

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