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As Iran Expands Uranium Enrichment Activity, Risks to Nuclear Deal Rise

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As Iran Expands Uranium Enrichment Activity, Risks to Nuclear Deal Rise

French President Emmanuel Macron, a staunch supporter of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, slammed Tehran’s decision to resume uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility, saying the move raised the risk of the multilateral accord collapsing.

Mr. Macron has led European efforts to salvage the deal after the U.S. pulled out of it last year and imposed harsh sanctions on Iran. The French leader has argued the agreement safeguards Europe’s security interests and offers a pathway to preventing Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon in coming years.

Iran began enriching uranium Wednesday at its Fordow nuclear plant, a facility buried deep within a mountain that is considered impregnable to most conventional weapons. Enriched uranium can be used as fuel for a nuclear weapon and the nuclear deal’s proponents say a 15-year ban on the activity at the site was a major Western win.

“I think that for the first time, Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the…agreement, which marks a significant shift,” Mr. Macron said Wednesday at a press conference in China.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that Fordow, pictured Jan. 30, 2013, would soon be fully operational again.


Photo:

DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

Tehran’s move sharpens the incremental approach to expanding its nuclear program that Iran adopted in May and signals to President Trump that as long he maintains maximum economic pressure, Tehran can cause problems for the White House. It also signals to Iran’s domestic audience that Tehran won’t budge in the face of U.S. pressure.

The Islamic Republic has since May repeatedly urged Europe to provide relief from U.S. sanctions, saying that otherwise, it would make fresh moves away from the limits of the nuclear deal every two months.

Europe’s response to Iran’s steps away from the deal limits has been tepid, providing Tehran with little incentive not to go further. Paris has tried to arrange a truce between Washington and Tehran, although President Trump and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have both at times dismissed the efforts.

However, the mood may be changing in Europe, diplomats say, as Iran’s breaches continue and concerns about other Iranian nuclear activities build.

Some key European decision makers, like Britain, already appear more willing to consider triggering a dispute mechanism in the 2015 deal, which could eventually unravel the accord and reimpose international sanctions on Iran.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Tuesday that the Fordow step was a threat to the U.K.’s national interest. And even before that, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was warning that further Iranian nuclear steps could sink the deal.

Other issues are also raising concern. A United Nations atomic agency inspector was briefly held in Iran last week, a Western diplomat said. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said the inspector was held for a routine check of her equipment.

The U.N. atomic agency also said Wednesday it would hold a special board meeting this week that diplomats said would address Iran’s failure to fully cooperate with a probe into radioactive material found at a secret site in Tehran.

European officials have made Iran’s calculations easier by signaling where their red lines are. These includes significant cuts in Iran’s breakout time, any move to increase uranium enrichment to 20% purity—from where it is relatively easy to produce weapons-grade material—and any moves to stymie U.N. atomic agency inspections.

Regular announcements about nuclear advances are useful domestically for President Rouhani, pictured Tuesday in Tehran.


Photo:

Iranian Presidency/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that Fordow would soon be in full operation again, as Iranian officials transferred a cylinder containing around 2,000 kilograms (4,409 pounds) of uranium gas to its enrichment hall.

The Fordow move won’t have a major impact on the pace of production of enriched uranium, leaving Iran far from the so-called breakout point. But resuming enrichment at the site, whose underground location presents a major hurdle to any military effort aimed at stopping the construction of a nuclear weapon there, has high global political resonance.

Domestically, the Iranian government faces growing skepticism of the value of international diplomacy and, specifically, the nuclear accord.

European countries have been unable to provide relief from damaging U.S. sanctions, which have sparked an economic crisis that has slashed the value of the Iranian currency and sent prices skyrocketing.

As Iran finds itself arguably worse off than before entering the 2015 accord, President Rouhani has come under attack from conservatives in the run up to next year’s parliamentary elections. Regular announcements about nuclear advances thus serve a useful domestic purpose for Mr. Rouhani—even if some appear more spin than substance.

In recent weeks, Iran has made much fanfare of new research work on more advanced centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium. Yet Western experts say that Iran is probably years away from being able to successfully deploy these machines en masse.

Meanwhile, Iran is seeking to raise the costs of Washington’s sanctions campaign ahead of U.S. presidential elections, as Mr. Trump faces domestic criticism for his calls to reduce Middle Eastern military commitments.

While the Fordow announcement is unlikely to herald an attempt to breakout toward a nuclear weapon, it is another signal that Iran isn’t interested in negotiating a new agreement with Mr. Trump, said Jeffrey Lewis, director of Middlebury Institute’s East Asia Nonproliferation Program.

“We’re just going back to the running crisis of 2002-2015,” he said.

Some world leaders are urging the U.S. and Iran to begin talks on a possible new nuclear deal, but neither side seems willing to make the first move.

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com and Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com

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