Iran says it has begun enriching uranium to 60 percent, the highest level to date

Iran said on Friday that it had begun producing uranium with 60 percent purity, in another breach of its commitments to the international community, which is concerned about its nuclear program.

The Islamic Republic had declared that it would greatly increase its uranium enrichment on Tuesday, two days after an attack on its nuclear power plant in Natanz as the accused arch-enemy Israel.

The announcement cast a shadow over talks in Vienna aimed at rescuing the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that US President Donald Trump abandoned almost three years ago.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization in Iran, confirmed on Friday that the country now produces uranium enriched to 60 percent purity.

“The enrichment of 60 percent uranium is underway at the Martyr Ahmadi Roshan nuclear power plant in Natanz,” he said, quoting the Tasnim news agency.

“We now get nine grams (almost a third of an ounce) per hour,” Salehi later said on state television.

While production was in progress, researchers at Natanz were still working on installing the two centrifuge lines that Iran said would be devoted to 60 percent enrichment operations, Salehi said.

He added that it could lead to Iran’s production of 60 percent enriched uranium falling to six grams per hour, but added that it would continue to make 20 percent enriched uranium on the same two lines.

The transition to enriching uranium to 60 percent purity brings Iran closer to the 90 percent level required for use in a nuclear weapon.

The Islamic Republic has been gradually restoring its nuclear commitments since 2019, a year after the United States withdrew from the agreement and began imposing sanctions.

The 2015 agreement, formally known as the Joint Overall Action Plan, or JCPOA, gave Iran exemption from sanctions in exchange for curbs for its nuclear program.

“Positive” nuclear talks

According to the agreement, Iran had committed to keep the enrichment to 3.67 percent, even though it had increased this to 20 percent in January.

Negotiations aimed at securing the United States’ return to the JCPOA and the lifting of sanctions resumed this week in Vienna.

Russia’s ambassador to the UN in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted after the latest round of discussions on Thursday that “general impression is positive”.

The head of the Iranian delegation, Abbas Araghchi, was more cautious at the end of the meeting.

Araghchi stressed that Iran wanted to avoid the talks “dragging on” and that they must “take place within a well-defined framework and within an acceptable period of time”.

He also stated that the planned increase in enrichment levels was to “meet some of the country’s medical needs”.

The European Union has rejected this argument, with its external affairs spokesman Peter Stano saying there was “no credible or plausible civil justification” for the move.

The talks involved delegations from the remaining parties to the JCPOA following the US challenge – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, as well as Iran.

Britain, France and Germany had expressed “serious concern” over Iran’s recent enrichment steps.

Iran says the move is a response to Israel’s “nuclear terrorism” after an explosion knocked out power at its enrichment plant in Natanz on Sunday.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement, but public radio reports in the country said it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency with reference to named intelligence services.

(AFP)