Iran to enrich uranium to 60 percent, highest level yet

Iran also warns it will not soften its stance on sanctions following an attack on its Natanz nuclear facility.

Iran - Enrichment
IAEA inspectors and Iranian technicians work at Natanz facility south of the capital Tehran [File: Kazem Ghane/IRNA via AP]

Tehran, Iran – Iran says it will soon begin enriching uranium at a purity of 60 percent, higher than it ever has.

Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi has informed Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), of the decision, according to state-run IRNA on Tuesday.

The move comes in response to an attack on the country’s main nuclear facilities in Natanz that led to a major blackout, which Iran has blamed on Israel.

“A thousand more centrifuges with 50 percent more capacity will be added to the machines in Natanz in addition to replacing damaged machines,” Araghchi said in Vienna, without further elaborating.

Iran’s government has not provided details about the damage incurred at Natanz, but a lawmaker on Tuesday said “thousands” of centrifuges were compromised.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had warned in late February that Iran could increase its uranium enrichment purity to 60 percent “if the country needs it”.

This marks a major escalation, as the higher enrichment brings Iran closer to the 90 percent level of purity required for military use. Iran, however, has repeatedly insisted it never has and never will seek a nuclear weapon.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, Tehran had committed to keep enrichment to 3.67 percent, though it had increased this to 20 percent in January.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, said work on 60 percent uranium enrichment will begin at Natanz from Tuesday evening.

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned earlier on Tuesday that neither the latest attack on the Natanz nuclear facilities nor sanctions will give the United States leverage in talks to restore Iran’s nuclear deal.

Standing next to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the Iranian capital Tehran, the diplomat said Iran is ready to come back into full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) after it verifies the US has lifted all its unilateral sanctions.

“But the Americans should know that neither sanctions nor acts of sabotage will give them negotiation tools and these acts will only make the situation more difficult for them,” he said during the joint press conference.

The nuclear enrichment and centrifuge assembly facilities at Natanz, in Isfahan province, were hit by a widespread power blackout on Sunday that Iran said was an act of “nuclear terrorism” by Israel and amounted to a “crime against humanity” since it could turn into a disaster.

Israeli and US media have openly reported that Israel and its spy agency Mossad were behind the attack, in an effort to halt Iran’s enrichment activities and derail JCPOA talks in Vienna.

The talks in Vienna were slated to continue on Wednesday, but have been delayed by one day to Thursday as a member of the European Union’s political delegation has contracted COVID-19, according to Iranian media.

The White House said on Tuesday it remains committed to nuclear negotiations with Iran despite its “provocative” statement that it will ramp up uranium enrichment.

“We are certainly concerned about these provocative announcements,” President Joe Biden’s 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.”

On Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and said that the only way for Washington to return to the nuclear agreement is to lift all forms of sanctions.

“The solution to the crises in the region will be through constructive dialogue between the countries of the region,” Rouhani said.

He also added that allowing the Israeli military presence in the region is “not a solution to problems”.

Iran says enrichment activity has not stopped at Natanz as emergency power was restored on Monday, and has vowed to replace the decommissioned centrifuges – which it said were first-generation IR1 machines – with more advanced versions.

Zarif wrote a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday, saying: “If the US wants to avert consequences of this foolish gamble, it must cease to consider economic terrorism perpetrated by Trump or recent nuclear terrorism as negotiating leverage and remove all sanctions.”

The US has said it had no role in the attack on the Natanz nuclear facilities.

‘Europe cannot preach’

The Iranian foreign minister also railed against European countries for their performance on the nuclear deal and their blacklisting of several Iranian officials and entities.

According to Zarif, the fact that Europe stopped its economic dealings with Iran under US pressure shows it is increasingly losing its relevance in international relations.

Coupled with what Zarif called “very soft” EU reactions to the Natanz incident and the humanitarian impact of sanctions on average Iranians, he said that means Europe is now following “the most extreme groups within the US, and Israel”.

He also slammed Europe for its Monday blacklisting of eight Iranian officials – including Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – and three prisons.

“Europe must know that it does not hold the ethical high ground. Europe cannot preach to the world. The Europe where xenophobia and Islamophobia have created horrific conditions for Muslims has neither reputation nor standing to sanction Iranian officials,” he said.

The EU imposed sanctions for the crackdown on Iranian protesters in 2019, when the UN said at least 304 protesters died during a near-complete internet blackout.

Source: Al Jazeera