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Iran’s president says ‘no limit’ to nuclear enrichment

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s president said Thursday that there is “no limit” to the country’s enrichment of uranium following its decision to abandon its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal in response to the killing of its top general in a U.S. airstrike.

In a speech before the heads of banks, Rouhani said the nuclear program is in a “better situation” than it was before the nuclear agreement with world powers.

President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement in May 2018, in part because it did not address Iran’s support for armed groups across the region and its ballistic missile program. The U.S. has since imposed “maximum” sanctions on Iran’s economy.

Iran continued to abide by the agreement until last summer, when it began openly breaching some of its limits, saying it would not be bound by the deal if it saw none of its promised economic benefits. After the Jan. 3 airstrike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s regional military operations, it said it would abandon all restrictions in the nuclear deal.

Thus far, however, it has only modestly increased its nuclear activity. In recent months it has boosted its enrichment of uranium to 4.5% — higher than the 3.67% limit set by the agreement but far from the 20% enrichment it was engaged in before the deal. Uranium must be enriched to 90% to be used in a nuclear weapon.

Britain, France and Germany have spent months trying to salvage the deal, but have not found a way to continue trading with Iran amid the tightened U.S. sanctions. Earlier this week, they triggered a dispute mechanism in the nuclear deal to try to bring Iran back into compliance. That process could lead to the snapback of international sanctions.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc is still committed to saving the deal.

After what his office described as a “frank dialogue” with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New Delhi on Thursday, Borrell “underlined the continued interest of the European Union to preserve the agreement.” Borrell said the deal is “now more important than ever, in light of the dangerous escalations in the Middle East and the Gulf region.”

Under the nuclear deal, Iran was promised relief from international sanctions and re-integration with the world economy in exchange for curbing its nuclear activities.

Instead, the renewed U.S. sanctions have cratered its economy. The value of the local currency has plunged, wiping out many people’s life savings, and prices have steadily risen. Protests erupted in November over an increase in gasoline prices, with more than 300 people reportedly killed. Iranian authorities have not released an official death toll.

The Institute of International Finance, a global association of financial institutions, published a report estimating that Iran’s economy will contract this fiscal year, ending in March, by more than 7%, mostly because of the drop in crude oil exports that are due to sanctions. That’s in stark contrast to 2016, when Iran’s economy grew some 12.5% after sanctions relief.

The report found that as a result, Iran’s reserves are expected to dip to $73 billion by March, totaling nearly $40 billion in losses over two years.

In his speech before the bankers, Rouhani acknowledged that the sanctions had caused economic pain. But he said economic considerations could not be separate from foreign policy and national security, indicating that Iran will not give in to sweeping demands by the United States.

He also acknowledged the steadily rising tensions with the United States.

“A single bullet can cause a war, and not shooting a single bullet can lead to peace,” he said, adding that his administration is seeking greater security.