Iran says it will start producing uranium enriched to 60 percent purity by next week following an alleged attack on the country’s main Natanz nuclear site that Tehran has blamed on archenemy Israel.
Iran’s envoy to the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), tweeted on April 14 that the country will use two cascades of advanced IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges in Natanz to enrich uranium hexafluoride up to 60 percent.
Enriching uranium to 60 percent would be the highest level achieved by Iran’s nuclear program, although it is still short of the 90 percent purity needed for military use. Tehran has repeatedly denied it is seeking nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear ambitions are purely civilian.
“The modification of the process just started and we expect to accumulate the product next week,” Kazem Gharibabadi wrote.
Iran had flagged the move a day earlier when it announced it would enrich uranium to its highest level ever, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif saying the alleged attack on the nuclear site south of Tehran was a “very bad gamble” that would strengthen Tehran’s hand in talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Under the agreement, Iran had committed to keep enrichment to 3.67 percent. Recently, it has been enriching up to 20 percent, saying the deal was no longer enforceable.
The White House has said it remains committed to talks with Iran despite Tehran’s “provocative” statement that it will ramp up uranium enrichment.
In a message aimed at Israel, Iran’s President Hassan Rohani said during a cabinet meeting on April 14: “You wanted to make our hands empty during the talks, but our hands are full.”
“We cut both of your hands, one with IR-6 centrifuges and another one with 60 percent,” he added.
IR-6 centrifuges enrich uranium at a far faster rate than the IR-1 first-generation centrifuges that were taken out in the suspected sabotage attack.
On April 13, the IAEA’s director-general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, confirmed that Iran had informed the agency that the country “intends to start producing UF6 enriched up to 60 percent.”
The White House is “certainly concerned about these provocative announcements,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “We believe that the diplomatic path is the only path forward here and that having a discussion, even indirect, is the best way to come to a resolution.”
Few details have emerged about the April 11 alleged attack; no images of the aftermath have been released.
Iranian officials have said an explosion caused a power failure at Natanz that affected Iran’s first generation of centrifuges, and vowed it would take “revenge” and ramp up its nuclear activities.
In a state television interview, Alireza Zakani, head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed.”
While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Israel is widely believed to have carried out the still-unexplained assault, which came a day after new uranium-enrichment equipment was unveiled at Natanz, an underground site key to Iran’s uranium-enrichment program that is monitored by IAEA inspectors.
It also occurred amid diplomatic efforts to revive the nuclear agreement, abandoned by the United States under former President Donald Trump, and which Israel fiercely opposes.
“Israel played a very bad gamble if it thought that the attack will weaken Iran’s hand in the nuclear talks,” Zarif said on April 13. “On the contrary, it will strengthen our position.”
Last week in Vienna, Iran and the global powers held what they described as constructive EU-hosted talks centering on overcoming an impasse between Washington and Tehran to bring both parties into full compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord.
Further discussions are scheduled in the Austrian capital on April 14.
The pact lifted international sanctions on Tehran in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program. But the Trump administration imposed a raft of sanctions on Tehran under a “maximum pressure” campaign after it withdrew from the nuclear agreement in 2018.
Iran responded by gradually breaching many of the nuclear restrictions.
U.S. and Iranian officials have publicly clashed over the sequencing of possible U.S. sanctions relief and Iran reversing its breaches of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Multiple Israeli media outlets quoted unnamed intelligence sources as saying that the country’s Mossad spy service carried out a successful sabotage operation at the Natanz site, potentially setting back enrichment work there by months.
Israel is suspected of carrying out sabotage against Iran in the past, including cyberattacks and assassinations of nuclear scientists.