TEHRAN: Iran will break the uranium stockpile limit set by Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in the next 10 days, the spokesman for the country's atomic agency said yesterday. Behrouz Kamalvandi also warned that Iran had uranium enriched levels up to 20 per cent, just a step away from weapons-grade levels.
The announcement indicated Iran's determination to break from the landmark 2015 accord, which has steadily unravelled since the Trump administration pulled the US out of the deal last year and reimposed tough economic sanctions on Iran, sending its economy into free fall. "Today the countdown to pass the 300kg reserve of enriched uranium has started and in 10 days' time … we will pass this limit," Mr Kamalvandi said at Iran's Arak heavy water facility.
On May 8, President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would stop observing restrictions on its stocks of enriched uranium and heavy water agreed under the deal. He said the move was in retaliation for the unilateral US withdrawal from the accord a year earlier, which saw Washington impose tough economic sanctions on Tehran.
Iran has threatened to go even further by July 8 unless remaining partners to the deal — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — help it circumvent US sanctions and especially enable it to sell its oil.
Under the agreement, Iran pledged to reduce its nuclear capacities for several years and allow international inspectors inside the country to monitor its activities in return for relief from international sanctions. The deal set a limit on the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges, and restricted its right to enrich uranium to no higher than 3.67 per cent, well below weapons-grade levels of around 90 per cent.
TEHRAN: Iran's top paramilitary force is maintaining support for armed groups in the Middle East and finding new sources of funding, defying US efforts to curb its activities abroad as tensions between Washington and Tehran soar following fresh attacks in the Gulf of Oman.
Iran's government has struggled to support an economy under pressure from US sanctions, but its elite defence force has found new sources of revenue, including recently signed infrastructure contracts in Syria and Iraq as well as expanded smuggling networks, according to advisers to the Guard and the US government.
The clout of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a group founded to protect the nation's security but which has expanded to include construction, banking and smuggling, appears to be growing in Iran as it helps to prop up the economy and keeps more powerful adversaries off balance.
"Everything you see today contributing to the Islamic Republic of Iran's defence power has been achieved under sanctions," the group's commander, Major General Hossein Salami, then a brigadier general, said in December.
The risk of a bigger conflict has come into sharp relief, as the Trump administration blames the Guard for explosions that crippled Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers on Thursday. Tehran denied involvement in these and previous attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf last month. Iranian officials have accused the US and its allies in the region of trying to create a false pretext to drag Iran into war.
The US has rolled out an unprecedented array of sanctions, designating the Guard a terrorist organisation to prevent foreign companies from doing business with it, and making it illegal for Iran's oil buyers to import its crude.
In March, the US Treasury banned dealings with the Guard-owned Ansar Bank, saying it was the key vehicle to pay salaries of the group's Quds Force — which directs Tehran's Middle East operations — and of its Pakistani and Afghan mercenaries in Syria. In addition, Ansar Bank extended the equivalent of millions of dollars as a loan to a front company controlled by Quds Force, it said.
But corporate records show Ansar Bank's cash deposits increased by 4 per cent over the past two months as it maintained higher returns on savings accounts. The Guard generates funds from construction works through its engineering arm, Khatam al-Anbia. In Syria, Khatam has in the past year signed contracts for construction and power equipment, a Guard adviser said. Khatam has built oil and gas pipelines in Iraq between Baghdad and the oil port of Basra, as well as a water-treatment plant in the country.
It also earns funds from smuggling fuel out of Iran, and taking consumer appliances and cigarettes back into the Islamic Republic, a former Guard official and the adviser to the force said.
The group has gained influence in western Iraq with a powerful Sunni clan and a local Shia group, a person familiar with US intelligence in the region said. In the past two months, the force has assisted the purchases of abandoned houses to benefit the groups, that person said. In return, the groups have allied politically and militarily with the Guard.
The wages of Iraqi militias — some trained by the Quds Force — are funded by the Iraqi government, so they aren't affected by sanctions on the Guard. The Iraqi embrace of militias hostile to the US is a source of tension between Washington and Baghdad. On Wednesday, the US Treasury Department blacklisted an Iraqi company it said had trafficked arms valued at hundreds of millions of dollars for Quds Force.
The Guard continue to send bags of cash by plane to the group's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah in Syria, said Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute who studies the group. Hezbollah hasn't commented.
Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen, who also tax food, fuel and tobacco, have stepped up attacks on Saudi Arabia's energy facilities and military airports.
Iranian military leaders say its network of allies around the region are offering Tehran a new advantage. When Iran fought Iraq in the 1980s, senior Guard commander Gholam Ali Rashid told parliament last month, the Islamic Republic was on its own. "Now it has allies all over the region," he said. "The enemy will pay a heavy price" if Iran is attacked.
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