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Iran steps closer to uranium enrichment restart in blow to nuclear deal

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Tensions likely to ratchet up in region

President Rouhani still keen on negotiations

Iranian oil exports languish below 500,000 b/d

Tehran — Iran will take steps enabling it to restart the uranium enrichment program at its underground facility in Fordow, it said Tuesday, ratcheting up tensions in the region and further souring relations with the US and the West.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his government will begin injecting gas into the nuclear centrifuges at the site from Wednesday.

"The step that we take tomorrow is that today I order the Iranian Atomic Organization to start gasification from tomorrow in Fordow," Rouhani said, according to state news agency IRNA.

This would be a substantial breach by Iran of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and is likely to draw a reaction from the other participants in the deal, especially France, Germany and the UK. Under the nuclear deal, Iran committed to stopping enrichment at Fordow and turning the facility into a research center.

The US withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018, and reimposed sanctions on Iran's oil sector, which has led to a huge fall in the country's oil output and exports. The UK, France, China, Russia and Germany remain in the deal, but analysts say their patience is wearing thin as negotiations with Iran have not resulted in any agreements.

Rouhani said this step was inevitable as the parties failed to reach an agreement with the remaining countries involved in the deal, but he hoped negotiations would resume, and said Iran would comply with the deal if sanctions were lifted.

"But in the next two months, we again have the chance to negotiate and we will negotiate again," he said. "If we reached an appropriate solution that sanctions are lifted, we could sell our oil easily, use the money in the bank, and other sanctions on insurance and metals were lifted, then we will return to the past conditions too."

OIL EXPORTS PLUNGE

Iranian oil exports, which averaged more than 1.7 million b/d in March, fell below 500,000 b/d in August, September and October, based on preliminary estimates compiled from Platts trade flow software cFlow and shipping sources. Around 200,000-250,000 b/d of Iranian exports in September went to China, according to preliminary tracking.

The country has had to resort to floating storage for its oil to cope with the surplus it has due to sanctions.

Iran's oil tankers are holding almost 55 million barrels of oil at sea, the highest since early January 2016, according to Platts estimates.

The majority of stored volumes lie off Iran's main oil terminals -- Kharg Island, Assaluyeh and Soroosh. Iran's tankers are also storing oil off the coast of the UAE, near the bunkering hub of Fujairah.

Iran's production has fallen to its lowest level in more than three decades. The country saw production fall 70,000 b/d to 2.23 million b/d in September, with the dramatic drop in crude exports somewhat offset by a significant build in storage, according to the Platts OPEC Survey.

-- Aresu Eqbali, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Eklavya Gupte, eklavya.gupte@spglobal.com;

-- Edited by James Burgess, newsdesk@spglobal.com