TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - A prominent member of Iran’s powerful Guardian Council has told The Associated Press that the Islamic Republic should stop honoring all terms of the collapsing 2015 nuclear deal with world powers amid tensions with the United States.
The comments by Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei show an increasing willingness among Iran’s hard-liners to use the country’s atomic program to pressure Western powers.
Nonproliferation experts are already concerned that steps Tehran has taken over the past months away from the accord narrow the estimated year it would need to build a nuclear bomb, if it chose to pursue one.
Yet Iran still allows United Nations inspectors to monitor its nuclear sites and hasn’t pushed its enrichment anywhere near weapons-grade levels of 90%.
Completely abandoning the deal as Kadkhodaei suggests could lead to an immediate confrontation. Israel, which has bombed Iraq and Syria in the past to stop their atomic programs, repeatedly has warned it won’t allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon.
“I think those who disrupted the game should be punished since they damaged other parties’ interests,” Kadkhodaei said in an interview with the AP in Tehran on Saturday.
Kadkhodaei serves on the 12-member Guardian Council, a panel of six clerics appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and six jurists nominated by Iran’s hard-line judiciary approved by its parliament. The Guardian Council approves all parliamentary and presidential candidates and must agree to all legislation passed by parliament before it becomes law.
That grants the body, which Kadkhodaei has served on intermittently since 2001, tremendous power in the political life of the Islamic Republic. It has also never allowed a woman to run for president and blocks candidates calling for dramatic changes to the Islamic Republic.
The Guardian Council in 2015 approved the nuclear deal, which saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Iranians celebrated in the streets of Tehran, hopeful the deal between their relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani and then-President Barack Obama meant Iran might normalize relations with the West after decades of enmity.
But President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in May 2018, saying the deal didn’t go far enough to stop Iran’s ballistic missile program and what he described as Tehran’s malign influence across the wider Mideast.
Kadkhodaei says Iran should no longer honor its commitments in the deal, calling it “very natural, logical and based on the agreement’s framework.”
That directly contradicts Rouhani’s position, who earlier this week declared Iran was “proud” of the deal. He tried to lobby hard-liners to back Iran’s staying in the deal by saying that next year, the country would be able to sell and purchase weapons abroad - something the U.S. already fears.
“We have to think and see where the country’s interests are,” Rouhani said. “Since remaining in the deal benefits us, the Islamic Republic of Iran chose a halfway method to protect the deal while reducing its commitments.”
Kadkhodaei, however, said pulling away from the deal would punish the U.S. “because they damaged others and their interests.”
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has shown a lot of patience so far and it remained in the framework of its commitments,” Kadkhodaei said. “In recent months, it has taken some actions in direction of vindication of its rights.”
Those recent actions are what Tehran calls its “four steps” away from the accord.
Iran now enriches uranium up to 4.5%, beyond the 3.67% allowed by the deal. Iranian officials say their stockpile of low-enriched uranium is over 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds), beyond the accord’s 300-kilogram (661-pound) limit. It also began using advanced centrifuges prohibited by the agreement and resumed enrichment at its underground Fordo facility.
The decision to restart work at Fordo particularly worries nonproliferation experts.
Shielded by the mountains, the facility also is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It’s about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead U.S. officials to suspect its purpose was rapid uranium enrichment to weapons-grade levels.
Iran insists Fordo was built at such a location to protect it from threatened airstrikes by Israel and the West but that it’s intended only to serve Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.
“Iran’s frustration with the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions in violation of the deal is understandable, but its most recent breach at Fordo is a very serious escalation that increases the risk that the nuclear agreement will collapse,” warned Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Washington-based Arms Control Association.
However, Davenport said she believed Iran wanted to pressure the West to honor the deal’s terms. Iranian officials have been trying to pressure Europe to come up with a way to sell its crude oil abroad, but a promised trade mechanism and a $15 billion line of credit floated by the French have yet to take hold.
“Iran is not racing to build a bomb but is trying to apply more pressure on the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on economic benefits agreed to in the” deal, she said.
Iran will likely have the 1,050 kilograms (2,315 pounds) of low-enriched uranium necessary to enrich up to weapons-grade levels for a single bomb “in just over four months-or sooner if Iran continues to expand its enrichment capacity,” Davenport said.
The U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal sent Iran’s economy into freefall. Nationwide economic protests roiled Iran at the end of 2017. Kadkhodaei said the Iranian people would likely have those hardships in mind when they vote in parliamentary elections scheduled for February.
“The economic situation is different,” he said. “Naturally, sensitivities are higher. … We should be mindful of all these things. They will eventually lead to a proper participation of people” in the vote.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
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