China urges calm, Russia warns against overdramatizing as Iran ramps up uranium enrichment

China has invited all sides involved in Iran’s “sensitive” nuclear issue to exercise restraint, while Russia has warned that there is nothing to overdramatize about Iran’s “predictable” announcement that it is enriching uranium to a higher level.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, urged all the parties to Iran’s nuclear deal to steer clear of steps that could exacerbate tensions.

Hua said the Iran nuclear issue was “extremely complex and sensitive.”

“China urges all sides to exercise calm and restraint, to stick to the commitments of the agreement and to refrain from taking actions that might escalate tensions, so as to make space for diplomatic efforts and a change in the situation,” she said.

“The urgent task at hand is for all sides to push the United States to return unconditionally to the agreement and remove all relevant sanctions,” so as to bring the agreement back onto the right track, Hua said

Also reacting to the news, Russia’s Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov said in a tweet on Monday, “We aren’t enthusiastic about the further deviation of Tehran from its commitments under #JCPOA. But there is nothing to overdramatize. The nuclear program remains fully transparent and verifiable.”

He was referring to the landmark nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), whose future has been in limbo since the unilateral US withdrawal and the European signatories’ inaction to save the accord.

The diplomat added, “We should focus on means to restore comprehensive implementation of the nuclear deal.”

The remarks came after Iran said it had begun the process of enriching uranium to 20 percent at the Fordow facility near the city of Qom.

The measure was taken under a law, dubbed the Strategic Action Plan to Counter Sanctions, which has been already approved by the Parliament (Majlis).

The legislation requires the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to produce at least 120 kilograms of 20-percent enriched uranium annually and store it inside the country within two months.

It also urges the AEOI to start the installation, gas injection, enrichment, and storage of nuclear materials up to an appropriate enrichment degree within a period of three months using at least 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges.

In another tweet on Monday, Ulyanov emphasized that the new enrichment level was “predictable” in line with the new Iranian law and that Tehran’s announcement was no “breaking news.”

“The main point is that it remains reversible within possible normalization of the situation around #JCPOA,” he said.

Iran says it showed to the world the peaceful nature of its nuclear program by signing the JCPOA in 2015. The agreement was also ratified in the form of a UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

However, Washington left the JCPOA in May 2018 and re-imposed illegal sanctions against Tehran in flagrant violation of Resolution 2231.

The Islamic Republic remained fully compliant with the deal for an entire year, waiting for the co-signatories to fulfill their end of the bargain by offsetting the impacts of Washington’s bans on the Iranian economy.

As the European parties failed to do so, Tehran moved in May 2019 to suspend its JCPOA commitments under Articles 26 and 36 of the agreement covering Tehran’s legal rights.

On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed in a report to the UN nuclear watchdog’s member states that Iran had started the new enrichment process.

“The IAEA DG reported today that … the Agency … confirmed that a cylinder containing 137.2 kg of uranium (enriched) up to 4.1% has been connected to the feeding line and production of UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) enriched up to 20% started,” tweeted Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s permanent representative to Vienna-based international organizations.

He was referring to IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi and to activity at the Fordow plant.

EU urges Iran to refrain from ‘undermining JCPOA’

The European Union called on Iran to avoid any steps that could undermine “the preservation of the nuclear deal.”

Peter Stano, the lead spokesman for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at the European Commission, said in a news briefing that “the deal will be kept alive as long as all the participants deliver on their obligations.”

“If this announcement is going to be implemented, the announcement by the Iranian authorities, it would constitute a considerable departure from Iran’s nuclear commitments under the JCPOA with serious non-nuclear, non-proliferation implications,” he said.

In response, the Iranian administration’s spokesman, Ali Rabiei, advised the EU to think about its own unfulfilled commitments instead of expressing concern about Iran’s rightful actions.

Iran’s new measure to boost uranium enrichment was taken “based on the parliamentary resolution and is in accordance with Article 36 of the JCPOA,” he said.

“Iran reserves the right to take appropriate actions until all parties comply with their obligations,” he added. “As we have said many times before, all these decisions can be swiftly reversed as soon as the parties return to their commitments specified in the JCPOA.”

US accuses Iran of ‘nuclear extortion’

A US official, in turn, alleged that Iran’s new enrichment activity is a form of “nuclear extortion.”

“Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent at Fordow is a clear attempt to increase its campaign of nuclear extortion, an attempt that will continue to fail,” Reuters quoted a State Department spokesperson as saying on the condition of anonymity.

Israel claims Iran seeking nukes

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Iran’s move to increase the uranium enrichment level proved that the country was seeking nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s decision to continue violating its commitments, raise the level of enrichment, and advance its industrial capacities for underground uranium enrichment cannot be explained in any way other than the further realization of its plans to develop a military nuclear program,” he said. “Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons.”

Responding to the allegation, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said, “Such accusations are heard from the Zionists all the time and have no foundation, being empty.”

“A regime that has nuclear weapons cannot accuse Iran of seeking to obtain nuclear weapons,” Araghchi said during an interview aired on Iranian television.

Iran has repeatedly asserted that it has never sought and will never seek nuclear arms based on a fatwa (religious decree) issued by Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei. The fatwa bans the production, possession and stockpiling of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

Tehran has also expressed its readiness to reverse the suspension of its commitments only if the US returns to the nuclear deal and lifts all sanctions without any preconditions or if the European co-chairs manage to protect business ties with Iran against Washington’s sanctions as part of their contractual obligations.