Tehran – Iran has resumed enriching 20 percent uranium at its underground Fordow nuclear facility, according to its government spokesman, in a move that further breaches terms of a landmark nuclear deal signed with world powers in 2015.
“A few hours ago the process to inject the gas began and the first UF6 enriched uranium product will be reached in a few more hours,” Ali Rabiei said.
Iran had informed the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it would soon begin enriching 20 percent uranium, which is higher than the current 4.5 percent level of enrichment, but still far below the 90 percent level that is considered weapons-grade.
The Islamic republic had previously committed to capping uranium enrichment at 3.67 percent as part of the nuclear deal.
It also agreed to ship most of its enriched uranium out of the country and allow no enrichment at Fordow, which was to be converted into a nuclear, physics and technology centre.
But exactly one year after United States President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal and imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran, the country abandoned that limit.
Tehran has since maintained that its steps are completely and quickly reversible as soon as the US and Europe return to their own commitments under the deal.
Spokesman Rabiei reiterated on Monday that the government of moderate President Hassan Rouhani remains opposed to the move, but is bound by law to implement legislation approved by the parliament in December.
The hardline parliament’s bill, which was also greenlit by the constitutional vetting body the Guardian Council, obligates the government to increase uranium enrichment to 20 percent and leaves the door open for more enrichment.
It also calls for expelling inspectors of the IAEA, increasing its uranium stockpile, building advanced centrifuges and revitalising the Arak heavy water reactor, among other things.
The bill was approved in a matter of days after top nuclear and military scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in November. Iran believes Israel was behind the assassination.
‘Where should the money come from?’
Earlier this week, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, had said his organisation was ready to start 20 percent enrichment after informing the IAEA.
“We are the solider of the establishment and have our hands on the trigger. When the commander issues the order, we can do it very quickly,” Salehi said, adding he only awaits the government’s final go-ahead.
But Salehi had criticised the legislation that, among other things, obligates his organisation to build 1,000 next-generation IR6 centrifuges.
“Where should the money come from? If it’s local resources, then they either don’t know how much local resources we have or they don’t know how much IR-6 centrifuges cost,” he had said.
European signatories of the nuclear deal have also said the move to increase uranium enrichment further hurts the landmark deal, calling on the Iranian government to refrain from implementing it.
World powers party to the deal, however, renewed their commitment to it in a high-level virtual meeting chaired by the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in late December.
The move to increase uranium enrichment also comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US one year after the US assassinated Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani.
Soleimani was travelling with a convoy of Iranians and Iraqis which the two countries maintain were on a diplomatic trip when they were hit by rockets fired from a US drone.
In what the US says is a show of force meant to deter Iran, it has flown B-52 strategic bombers in the region three times in the past month.
The US also on Monday reversed its decision to return Navy aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to its base and said the reversal came because Iranian officials renewed their threats on Trump and other US officials.
US president-elect Joe Biden has promised to reverse Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran by returning to the nuclear deal and lifting sanctions. However, Biden and European powers have signalled that they want to extend talks to include Iran’s regional influence and missiles programme.
Iran has adamantly reiterated that those issues have never been on the negotiating table, including when the nuclear deal was being discussed, and will never be.