Iran starts 60% uranium enrichment in efforts to strengthen hand in nuclear talks
Iran said on Tuesday it would begin enriching uranium to 60% purity, a move that would bring fissile material closer to levels suitable for a bomb, after accusing Israel of sabotaging a major nuclear installation.
The extradition came just before talks resumed in Vienna with the aim of reviving Iran’s nuclear deal in 2015 with major powers, an agreement that Israel opposed, after former US President Donald Trump abandoned it three years ago.
A cleavability of 90% is suitable for a nuclear bomb.
Abbas Araqchi, head of the nuclear negotiator, announced a 60% enrichment, also said that Iran would activate 1,000 advanced centrifuge machines at Natanz, a nuclear power plant that was hit by an explosion on Sunday that Tehran called a sabotage of its arch-enemy Israel.
However, an Iranian official later told Reuters that “60% enrichment will be in small quantities”.
“From tonight, practical preparations for 60% enrichment will begin in Natanz. 60% uranium is used to make various radiopharmaceuticals,” Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the semi-official news agency Fars, quoted Iran’s nuclear power agency.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, said it had been informed of Iran’s decision.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called Iran’s announcement “provocative” and said the Biden administration was concerned, adding that it questioned Tehran’s seriousness with nuclear talks.
Last week, Iran and the global powers held what they described as “constructive” talks to save the 2015 agreement, which has been dissolved as Iran has violated its uranium enrichment limits since Trump reintroduced harsh sanctions against Tehran.
The deal had limited the level of purity that Iran can enrich uranium hexafluoride, the raw material for centrifuges, to 3.67%, well below the 90% needed for bomb quality materials.
In recent months, Iran has increased its enrichment to 20% purity, a level where uranium is considered to be highly enriched and is an important step towards weapons quality. Three to five percent is roughly the level required to run civilian nuclear power plants.
The biggest obstacle to producing nuclear weapons is the accumulation of sufficient amounts of fissile material – either 90% enriched uranium or plutonium – for the nucleus of a bomb.
One of the key objectives of the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was to extend the time Iran would have to do so, if it so chose, to one year from about 2-3 months.
Iran says it has never sought to acquire or develop nuclear weapons and that it is seeking nuclear technology for civilian purposes in medicine or energy.
Western intelligence services believe Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program that was mothballed in 2003, although arch-rival Israel believes it continues in some form and sees Tehran’s nuclear activity as an existential threat.
Iran’s top diplomat said earlier on Tuesday that the bombing of the underground Natanz plant, which it blames on Israel, was a “very bad bet” that would increase Tehran’s leverage in talks to save the nuclear deal.
“I assure you that in the near future, more advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges will be located at the Natanz plant,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a news conference with his visiting Russian counterpart in Tehran.
Nuclear power talks will resume on Thursday in Vienna.
Tehran has said the explosion in Natanz, which cut off electricity in centrifuge production halls, was sabotage by Israel and promised revenge for the incident, which appeared to be the latest episode in a long-running secret war.
Israel, which the Islamic Republic does not recognize, has not formally commented on the issue.
US President Joe Biden has said that Iran must resume full compliance with curbs for its enrichment activities as part of the deal, which won the lifting of all international sanctions against Tehran, before Washington can rejoin the pact.