TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran said Sunday that it had begun the process of enriching uranium beyond the limit allowed by its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, putting the country closer to being able to produce an atomic bomb.
But Iran also called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Experts say Iran's goal is to pressure Europe to help ease the sanctions imposed after President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear agreement last year.
"The fact that the Europeans haven't yet managed to meet our demands doesn't mean that diplomatic consultations have been closed," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said. "On the condition that sanctions are removed, there is no barrier to the presence of the Americans in the negotiations."
The sanctions imposed in May are intended to cut off Iran's oil sales anywhere in the world. France, Germany and the U.K. have delivered a financial channel known as Instex that aims to protect some trade with Iran -- initially only food and medicine -- from the threat of U.S. penalties. But Iran wants a trade vehicle that can be used to sell oil.
At a news conference, Iranian officials said the new level of uranium enrichment would be reached later Sunday, but they did not provide the percentage they planned to hit. Under the nuclear deal, the cap for enrichment was set at 3.67%, a level closely monitored by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear monitoring group.
Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits and is far below weapons-grade levels of 90% -- though levels lower than 90% still would be considered significant if Iran is ramping up its nuclear program.
"Within hours, the technical tasks will be done and enrichment above 3.67% will begin," Iranian nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said, adding that Iran is able to continue enrichment "at any speed, any amount and any level."
The steps Iran has taken are all easily reversible, but the move Iran said it was making Sunday is seen as the most threatening.
The U.N. agency said it was aware of Iran's comments and that "inspectors in Iran will report to our headquarters as soon as they verify the announced development."
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter to European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to outline the steps his country had taken, Araghchi said. Iran had threatened 60 days before to abandon some of its commitments under the deal if Europe didn't meet Sunday's deadline to relieve sanctions that include penalties for buying Iranian oil.
"We will give another 60-day period, and then we will resume the reduction of our commitments," Araghchi said, without elaborating.
The decision to ramp up uranium enrichment came less than a week after Iran acknowledged breaking the deal's 661-pound limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile. Experts warn that higher enrichment and a growing stockpile narrow the one-year window that Iran would need to have enough material for an atomic bomb.
The 2015 deal was designed to prevent Iran from producing an atomic bomb, which it has said it doesn't want anyway.
Trump says his campaign of "maximum pressure" is designed to get a weakened Iran to the bargaining table, where he hopes to renegotiate some of the terms of the 2015 accord and roll back Iran's political influence in the Middle East.
Trump warned Sunday that "Iran better be careful." The president didn't elaborate on what actions the U.S. might consider, but he told reporters: "Iran's doing a lot of bad things."
International reaction to Iran's decision came swiftly, with the EU saying parties to the deal are discussing a possible emergency meeting.
Britain warned Iran to "immediately stop and reverse all activities" violating the deal. Germany said it is "extremely concerned."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime critic of the accord, urged so-called snapback sanctions -- the restoration of all U.N. sanctions on Iran.
"It is a very, very dangerous step," he said, addressing world powers. "I'm asking you, not to provoke, but out of joint knowledge of history and what happens when aggressive totalitarian regimes can cross the threshold toward things that are very dangerous to us all. Take the steps that you promised. Enact the sanctions."
A member of Netanyahu's security Cabinet said Tehran's announcement Sunday means "it is brushing off the red lines that were agreed."
"It has begun its march, a march that is not simple, toward nuclear weaponry," Cabinet member Yuval Steinitz said in a television interview.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: "Iran's latest expansion of its nuclear program will lead to further isolation and sanctions. Nations should restore the longstanding standard of no enrichment for Iran's nuclear program. Iran's regime, armed with nuclear weapons, would pose an even greater danger to the world."
Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said the steps Iran has taken show it is more interested in applying political pressure than moving toward a nuclear weapon. He said Iran would need at least 2,315 pounds of low-enriched uranium to make the core of a single nuclear bomb, then would have to enrich it to 90% -- a monthslong process.
"Iran is not racing toward the bomb as some allege, but these are calibrated moves," Kimball said. However, "if Iran and the United States remain on the current course, the agreement is indeed in jeopardy," he said.
Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the nonprofit Foundation for Defense of Democracies, agreed that the 2015 deal is in jeopardy, but he sees that as a good thing. Dubowitz is among the most vociferous critics of the accord, but he said it has helped give the U.S. the upper hand in the current crisis.
Dubowitz said President Barack Obama's administration had persuaded Iran to dismantle so much of its nuclear infrastructure that it reduced Iran's leverage in additional negotiations, then Trump's sanctions left the country without enough money to support its nuclear work or any military activities.
"If you were a Martian who landed on the Washington Mall yesterday, and you were given a briefing on Iran policy, you would think, 'Wow, those Americans are really smart when they work together,'" Dubowitz said.
Information for this article was contributed by Jon Gambrell, Nasser Karimi, Kiyoko Metzler, Aron Heller and Angela Charlton of The Associated Press; by David D. Kirkpatrick and David E. Sanger of The New York Times; and by Golnar Motevalli of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 07/08/2019
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