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Mon. 1:50 p.m.: Iran breaches uranium stockpile limit set by nuclear deal

FILE - In this April 9, 2018 file photo, released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani listens to explanations on new nuclear achievements at a ceremony to mark "National Nuclear Day," in Tehran, Iran. As Iran prepares to break through limits set by its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, each step narrows the time its leaders would need to have enough highly enriched uranium for an atomic bomb -- if they chose to build one. By Thursday, June 27, 2019, Iran says it will have over 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium in its possession, which would mean it had broken out of the atomic accord. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran has broken the limit set on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, international inspectors and Tehran said today, marking its first major departure from the unraveling agreement a year after the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the accord.

The announcement by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and later confirmation by the U.N. nuclear watchdog puts new pressure on European nations trying to save the deal amid President Donald Trump’s maximalist campaign targeting Tehran. Iran separately threatens to raise its uranium enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels on July 7 if Europe fails to offer it a new deal.

It also further heightens tensions across the wider Middle East in the wake of Iran recently shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone, mysterious attacks on oil tankers that America and the Israelis blame on Tehran, and bomb-laden drone assaults by Yemen’s Iranian-backed rebels targeting Saudi Arabia.

Britain urged Iran to reverse course and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the action “a significant step toward making a nuclear weapon.” Iran long has insisted its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, despite Western fears about it.

Though Trump pulled back from airstrikes targeting Iran after the U.S. drone was shot down, Washington has rushed an aircraft carrier strike group, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and thousands of additional troops to the region. That’s raised fears that a miscalculation or further incidents could push the two sides into an armed conflict, some 40 years after the Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Speaking to journalists in Tehran, Zarif acknowledged Iran that broken through the limit set by the accord.

“We had previously announced this and we have said it transparently what we are going to do,” Zarif said. “We are going to act according to what we have announced and we consider it our right reserved in the nuclear deal.”

The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, later said its director general had informed officials that it verified Monday that Iran had broken through the limit.

Under terms of the nuclear deal, Iran agreed to have less than 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of uranium enriched to a maximum of 3.67%. Previously, Iran enriched as high as 20%, which is a short technical step away from reaching weapons-grade levels. It also held up to 10,000 kilograms (22,046 pounds) of the higher-enriched uranium.

Neither Zarif nor the U.N. agency said how much uranium Iran now had on hand. Last week, an Iranian official in Vienna said that Tehran was 2.8 kilograms away from the limit. Iran previously announced it had quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium, which at under 3.67% is enough to power a nuclear reactor to create electricity, but is far below weapons-grade levels.

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