Iran Signals Nuclear Escalation as Negotiations Handed to Raisi

Iranian leaders conceded they won’t secure the revival of a nuclear agreement with world powers during their last few weeks in office, and signaled that they’re leaving behind an atomic program poised on the threshold of what’s required for a weapon.

President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, an ultraconservative cleric, will have to conclude talks aimed at reviving the 2015 agreement that lifted U.S. sanctions in exchange for nuclear caps, the outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani, said Wednesday at one of his final cabinet meetings. Hours later, his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted a chart indicating that Iran’s stockpile of highly-enriched uranium has almost tripled since June.

“The table has been set,” said Rouhani, who leaves office Aug. 3. “We hope, God willing, that the 13th government can complete the work.”

Diplomats told Bloomberg this week that Iran was unlikely to return to negotiations aimed at restoring the landmark accord -- which all but collapsed after then-U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 -- until mid-August, after Raisi enters office.

The talks are being closely watched by energy markets anticipating a surge in Iranian oil and gas exports if sanctions on the country’s sales are lifted. A dispute between two foes of Tehran -- the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- is preventing OPEC+ from boosting supplies as major economies emerge from pandemic lockdowns.

Iran has almost tripled its stockpile of uranium enriched to 60% to 8.9 kilograms (19.6 pounds) from 2.4 kilograms verified by international inspectors in a June report, according to a tweet by Zarif, which advised U.S. President Joe Biden to “look closely” at Iran’s most-recent nuclear capacity and stockpile figures.

That level of uranium enrichment is technically indistinguishable from the material needed to make nuclear weapons, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told Bloomberg in an interview last month. As little as 10 to 15 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium could be used to manufacture a crude nuclear weapon, according to estimates published by the Federation of American Scientists.

Iran has always maintained that its nuclear program is for civilian uses but concern in Western capitals and Israel over the potential for bomb-making helped prompt the 2015 deal.

Rouhani appeared to blame Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament for his failure to revive the accord after the assembly passed a law late last year triggering a rapid expansion in Iranian nuclear activity. He said U.S. sanctions would’ve been lifted by March, if the bill hadn’t been introduced.

“They snatched the opportunity from the hands” of the government, he said in the comments shown on state TV. “Four, five, six months of opportunities have been lost, which we sorely regret.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.