Amid rising tension in the Middle East Iran has said it has increased the production rate of uranium four-fold. The Iranian statement is a direct challenge to the US, which has slapped more sanctions on the Shia state over its nuclear programme.
The Iranians said they have quadrupled the output of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent, a move that means Tehran's low-enriched uranium production will exceed the limits set out under the nuclear deal. The announcement came after US President Donald Trump said if Iran chooses to open a war front it will face its 'official end'.
"If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!" Trump tweeted.
A top Iranian official at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) made the announcement on Monday at the Natanz nuclear facility.
"This issue does not mean an increase in enrichment level or an increase in centrifuge machines or a change in the type of centrifuges, but the production capacity of these 3.67% enriched uranium will be quadrupled," Behrouz Kamalvandi said, according to Iran's Press TV.
Atomic weapons grade uranium
Nuclear weapons grade uranium is enriched to over 90 percent. Hence the current development doesn't mean Iran is making an imminent headway in its atomic programme. However. the increased stockpiling of nuclear material by Iran will further damage the fragile nuclear pact and ratchet up tensions in the Middle East.
Iran has been putting pressure on the signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for some time, saying the deal must be saved. The latest provocation is by far an attempt by Tehran to increase the pressure. Earlier, top Iranian officials had said the country would have no other option but to go for 20 percent enrichment of uranium if the 2015 pact falls through.
The US, on its part, has deployed an aircraft carrier and bombers in the region saying there's threat from Iran against it and its allies. Meanwhile, last week's drone attack on oil tankers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE at Fujairah port intensified tensions in the region.
The Houthi militia in Yemen claimed the drone attacks but the US and the Saudi authorities believe Iran was behind the attack by the Houthis, their Shia associates in Yemen.
Even as the US increased its fire power in the Persian Gulf, Iran dismissed the military show of strength. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander said earlier this week the US aircraft carrier stationed in the region wasn't exactly a strategic asset for the US but a liability. He said the US risked far too much by positioning a warship close to Iran with scores of fighter planes and thousands of soldiers.
Experts say that Iran was already on way to breaching the threshold on nuclear stockpiles but the latest move means that they are racing to cross the threshold. "The comparison here is they were already going 55 miles per hour and heading towards a busted bridge. And so what the AEOI is saying is that they threw a brick on the accelerator," said Richard Nephew, a sanctions expert who worked on the nuclear deal according to CNBC.