Iran's uranium enrichment level has passed 4.5 percent, exceeding the cap set by the 2015 nuclear deal.
After months of military threats issued by the US, heavier sanctions imposed on the Iranian economy, and the downing of a US drone by Iranian forces, Iran has eased its uranium enrichment beyond the limit set out in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
The country’s nuclear programme is now creeping closer towards weapons-grade levels, although it is still significantly short of the levels required.
The move threatens the nuclear deal brokered in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Russia and China, Britain, France and Germany). Under the deal, Iran would curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
But in May 2018, Trump unilaterally pulled the US from the deal. A year later to the day, Iran partially pulled out, threatening to increase its uranium enrichment in 60 days if no new terms were reached. It also says it will stop selling its excess enriched uranium and heavy water, as stipulated by the deal.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, says it is aware of Iran’s comments and is looking to “verify the announced development”.
Is this a credible threat?
These developments do not mean the end of the 2015 deal. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the cap for enrichment was set at 3.67 percent, a percentage closely monitored by inspectors from the IAEA.
Enriched uranium at 3.67 percent is far below the weapons-grade levels of 90 percent. This means that Iran's recent moves to increase enrichment and break its low-enriched uranium stockpile limit can be easily reversed.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran's nuclear agency, separately hinted in a state television interview on Monday that the country might consider reaching 20 percent enrichment or higher as its third step, if the material is needed.
That would worry nuclear nonproliferation experts, as 20 percent is a short technical step away from reaching weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.
Experts warn higher enrichment and a growing stockpile would narrow the one-year window Iran would need to have enough material for an atomic bomb. This is something Iran denies it wants but the deal aimed to prevent nevertheless.
"As long as Iran does not get close to a threshold of a tonne of lightly enriched uranium, there is no pressing concern", Francois Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Iran said.
However, he added: "[If Iran] amassed, for example, a stock of 200 to 300 kilogrammes of uranium enriched to nearly 20 percent, there would be cause for great concern."
Even then, Nicoullaud noted, Iran could still not be deemed to be within months of being able to detonate a nuclear device.
And he explained that a growing stock of heavy water "presents no danger of proliferation, at least for many years".
What does Iran want?
Under the heavy weight of additional US sanctions, the Iranian economy has experienced a major slump.
Tehran is seeking "primarily to preserve" the Vienna deal itself, Clement Therme, a researcher on Iran at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told AFP.
"The main problem for Iran is to avoid economic collapse... without provoking a war," he said.
The steps taken so far by Iran show it is more interested in applying political pressure than moving toward a nuclear weapon, Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, told the Associated Press.
"Iran is not racing toward the bomb as some allege but these are calibrated moves," Kimball said.
The future of the accord remains in question. Iranian and European diplomats are set to meet by July 15 to outline conditions to resume talks between all parties - a bid to find a way around US sanctions and deliver the deal's promised economic relief.