US imposes further sanctions on Iran as it announces new prototype centrifuge that works 50 times faster than those allowed under the nuclear deal as Iranians mark the 40th anniversary of the 1979 US Embassy hostage crisis.
Iran on Monday broke further away from its collapsing 2015 nuclear deal with world powers by announcing it's doubling the number of advanced centrifuges it operates, calling the decision a direct result of US President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the agreement.
The announcement, which also included Iran saying it now has a prototype centrifuge that works 50 times faster than those allowed under the deal, came as demonstrators across the country marked the 40th anniversary of the 1979 US Embassy takeover that started a 444-day hostage crisis.
By starting up these advanced centrifuges, Iran further cuts into the one year that experts estimate Tehran would need to have enough material for building a nuclear weapon, if it chose to pursue one.
Iran long has insisted its programme is for peaceful purposes, though Western fears about its work led to the 2015 agreement that saw Tehran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grammes (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilogrammes (11 pounds), said Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran.
Salehi dramatically pushed a button on a keyboard to start a chain of 30 IR-6 centrifuges at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, where he was being filmed, increasing the number of working centrifuges to 60.
"With the grace of God, I start the gas injection," the US-trained scientist said.
The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges to enrich uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. Salehi also announced that scientists were working on a prototype he called the IR-9, which worked 50-times faster than the IR-1.
As of now, Iran is enriching uranium to 4.5 percent, in violation of the accord's limit of 3.67 percent. Enriched uranium at the 3.67 percent level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90 percent. At the 4.5 percent level, it is enough to help power Iran's Bushehr reactor, the country's only nuclear power plant.
US sanctions Iran supreme leader's aides
The United States imposed sanctions on nine people with ties to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, including his chief of staff, one of his sons and the head of Iran's judiciary, the US Treasury Department said on Monday.
The United States also sanctioned Iran's Armed Forces General Staff, the department said in the statement, which came 40 years after Iran seized the US embassy in Tehran, taking more than 50 Americans hostage.
"Today the Treasury Department is targeting the unelected officials who surround Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and implement his destabilising policies," US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
"These individuals are linked to a wide range of malign behaviours by the regime, including bombings of the US Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in 1994, as well as torture, extrajudicial killings, and repression of civilians," Mnuchin added.
Separately, the US State Department announced a new reward up to $20 million for information that leads to the location, recovery and return of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who was last seen in Iran.
"The Trump Administration has made clear that the regime in Iran must release all missing and wrongfully detained Americans, including Robert Levinson, Xiyue Wang, Siamak Namazi, and others. We will not rest until they are reunited with their families," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, referring to American citizens who have been imprisoned in Iran after being accused of espionage.
The sanctions are designed to impose more limits on Khamenei's inner circle, an administration official said.
444-day hostage crisis
Demonstrators gathered in front of the former US Embassy in downtown Tehran as state television aired footage from other cities across the country making the anniversary.
"Thanks to God, today the revolution's seedlings have evolved into a fruitful and huge tree that its shadow has covered the entire" Middle East, said General Abdolrahim Mousavi, the commander of the Iranian army.
However, this year's commemoration of the embassy seizure comes as Iran's regional allies in Iraq and Lebanon face widespread protests.
The collapse of the nuclear deal coincided with a tense summer of mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities that the US blamed on Iran.
Tehran denied the allegation, though it did seize oil tankers and shoot down a US military surveillance drone.
The US has increased its military presence across the Mideast, including basing troops in Saudi Arabia for the first time since the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Both Saudi Arabia and the Neighbour United Arab Emirates are believed to be talking to Tehran through back channels to ease tensions.