DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iran on Friday began enriching uranium to its highest level, approaching military-grade levels to pressure talks in Vienna to restore its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on its main atomic site.
A senior official said only a few grams of uranium per hour would be enriched to 60% purity – triple the level it once had, but at a much slower rate than what Tehran could produce. International inspectors have already said Iran plans to do so on the surface at its Natanz nuclear site, not deep in its underground halls hardened to withstand airstrikes.
The move is likely to increase tensions even as Iran negotiates in Vienna on a way to allow the United States to return to the deal and lift the crushing economic sanctions it faces. However, its reach also offers Iran a way to quickly de-escalate if it wishes.
The announcement also marks a significant escalation after the attack that damaged centrifuges in Natanz, an attack last weekend believed to have been carried out by Israel. Although Israel has yet to claim it, it comes amid a long shadow war between the two Middle Eastern rivals.
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Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, speaker of Iran’s parliament, announced the move in a Twitter message later acknowledged by Iranian state television.
“The young Iranian scientists who believe in God have succeeded in obtaining a product of 60% enriched uranium,” Qalibaf said. “I congratulate the courageous nation of Islamic Iran on this achievement. The will of the Iranian nation is miraculous and can defuse any conspiracy.”
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, the country’s civilian nuclear arm, later acknowledged the move to 60%, according to state television. Ali Akbar Salehi said centrifuges are now producing 9 grams per hour, but that will drop to 5 grams per hour in the coming days.
“Now any enrichment (level) is possible if we choose,” Salehi said.
State television later called the move a “show of power against terrorist rascality.”
It was not clear why the first announcement came from Qalibaf, a former hardline leader of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards already nominated as a potential presidential candidate in the upcoming June elections in Iran.
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While 60% is higher than any level of uranium previously enriched by Iran, it is still below military grade levels of 90%.
Iran was enriched by up to 20% – even this was a short technical step towards the quality of weapons. The deal limited Iran’s enrichment to 3.67%.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s nuclear program, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, he sent his inspectors to Natanz and confirmed that Iran was preparing to start a 60% enrichment at an above-ground facility at the site.
The increased enrichment could inspire a new response from Israel amid a long shadow war between nations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed never to allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and his country has twice preemptively bombed countries in the Middle East to stop their atomic programs.
Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi during a visit to Cyprus referred to Iran in a tweet after meeting his Cypriot counterpart.
“We discussed bilateral relations between Israel and Cyprus as well as regional issues, including the importance of stopping Iran’s aggressive activities in the Middle East, which undermine regional stability and pose a danger to the whole world. “he wrote.
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Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, although the West and the IAEA claim Tehran had an organized military nuclear program until the end of 2003. An annual US intelligence report released Tuesday maintained the US assessment that “Iran is not currently undertaking the major nuclear project. weapons development activities that we deem necessary to produce a nuclear device.”
Iran had previously said it could use uranium enriched up to 60% for nuclear-powered ships. However, the Islamic Republic currently has no such vessel in its navy.
The threat of higher Iranian enrichment had already drawn criticism from the United States and three European countries in the deal – France, Germany and the United Kingdom. European Union spokesman Peter Stano on Friday called Iran’s move “a very worrying development”.
“There is no credible explanation or civilian justification for such action on Iran’s side,” Stano said. The Vienna talks aim to “ensure that we revisit such measures which further distance Iran from its commitments and obligations”.
The 2015 nuclear deal, from which former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States in 2018, prevented Iran from storing enough highly enriched uranium to be able to use a nuclear weapon if it chose in return for the lifting of economic sanctions.
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The weekend attack in Natanz was initially described only as a blackout in the power grid feeding both its aboveground workshops and underground enrichment halls – but later Iranian officials began to cut it down. ‘call an attack.
Alireza Zakani, head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in an interview on public television. However, no other official has offered the figure and no pictures of the aftermath have been released.
Planet Labs Inc. satellite images obtained by The Associated Press show no apparent damage to the ground at the facility.
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