Tal AxelrodMay 15, 2019 – 10:13 AM EDT
Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday issued a veiled threat that his country would have little difficulty enriching its uranium stockpiles to weapons-grade levels amid rising tensions with the U.S.
State media reported Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s comments, according to The Associated Press, his first on Iran’s nuclear program since President Hassan Rouhani said last week that the country would begin curtailing its compliance with a landmark 2015 nuclear pact.
Tehran is threatening to resume higher uranium enrichment in 60 days beyond the 3.67 percent permitted under the agreement if no new nuclear deal is negotiated. Iranian officials have said its nuclear scientists could achieve 20 percent enrichment within four days, according to the AP, a mark it is not known to have reached in the past.
Scientists say the time it takes to reach 90 percent enrichment, which would be considered weapons-grade, is halved once the 20 percent enrichment threshold is breached.
“Achieving 20 percent enrichment is the most difficult part,” Khamenei said, according to the AP. “The next steps are easier than this step.”
The comments come amid heightening tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The already dire relationship further deteriorated last week after the Trump administration announced a U.S. carrier strike group would head to the region in response to unspecified “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”
The move was reportedly prompted in part by intelligence that Tehran gave permission to some of its proxy forces in the region to attack U.S. military assets and personnel in the region.
Rouhani also announced last week that he would limit Iran’s compliance with the Obama-era nuclear deal. President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the pact in 2018 because he said the agreement did not adequately address Tehran’s influence in the region or its missile programs, though European signatories have urged Iran to remain in the deal.
As the hostilities escalate, the State Department Wednesday moved to evacuate non-emergency personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil.
Khamenei reportedly told senior Iranian officials that no negotiations would take place with Washington to ease tensions, calling such talks “poison,” but that “neither we, nor them is seeking war. They know that it is not to their benefit.”