Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Tuesday to “never let Iran develop nuclear weapons” after Tehran announced it was expanding its uranium enrichment efforts in a further breach of the 2015 nuclear deal.
”Iran expands its aggression everywhere. It seeks to envelop Israel. It seeks to threaten Israel. It seeks to destroy Israel,” Netanyahu said at an event in Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
“We fight back,” he added.
“And I also want to say, given Iran’s efforts to expand its nuclear weapons program, expand its enrichment of uranium for making atomic bombs, I repeat here once again: We will never let Iran develop nuclear weapons. This is not only for our security and our future; it’s for the future of the Middle East and the world.”
Netanyahu spoke just hours after Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani announced that Tehran will begin injecting uranium gas into 1,044 centrifuges located at the heavily fortified Fordo facility in Iran’s Qom Province.
The move marks Tehran’s latest step away from its nuclear deal with world powers since US President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord over a year ago.
The development is significant as the centrifuges previously spun empty, without gas injection, under the accord. It also increases pressure on European nations that remain in the accord, which has all but collapsed.
A statement carried in Iranian media later Tuesday said enrichment would go to five percent beginning Wednesday, when the centrifuges at Fordo would be injected with uranium gas.
Rouhani’s remarks, carried live on Iranian state television, came a day after Tehran’s nuclear program chief said the country had doubled the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation.
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the enrichment increase would be carried out in front of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog now monitoring Iran’s compliance with the deal, according to Iran’s Mehr news.
“Salehi said that it had been decided that there will not be [20%] uranium enrichment at Fordo for the time being,” the Iranian outlet reported.
Under the 2015 nuclear accord, Iran was limited to enriching uranium up to 3.67%, which is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade level of 90%. This summer, it began surpassing this level, in violation of the agreement, up to 4.5%, as a form of retaliation toward the United States, which has been steadily imposing sanctions on Iran since the White House pulled out of the nuclear deal last year.
There was no immediate reaction from the IAEA to Tuesday’s announcements.
The European Union on Monday called on Iran to return to the deal, while the White House sanctioned members of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s inner circle as part of its maximalist campaign against Tehran. Britain’s Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said Iran’s reduced compliance with the nuclear deal “pose a risk to our national security.”
He added: “We want to find a way forward through constructive international dialogue but Iran needs to stand by the commitments it made and urgently return to full compliance.”
France, too, urged Iran to reverse course. “We urge Iran to go back on its decisions which contradict the accord,” the French foreign ministry said.
Rouhani stressed the steps taken so far, including going beyond the deal’s enrichment and stockpile limitations, could be reversed if Europe offers a way for it to avoid US sanctions choking off its crude oil sales abroad.
“We should be able to sell our oil,” Rouhani said. “We should be able to bring our money” into the country.
The centrifuges at Fordo are IR-1s, Iran’s first-generation centrifuges. The nuclear deal let those at Fordo to spin without uranium gas, while allowing up to 5,060 at its Natanz facility to enrich uranium.
A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. An IR-6 centrifuge can produce enriched uranium 10 times faster than an IR-1, Iranian officials say.
Iranian scientists also are working on a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50 times faster than the IR-1, Salehi said Monday.
Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilograms (11 pounds), Salehi said. Iran now holds over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, Salehi said. The deal had limited Iran to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).
The collapse of the nuclear deal coincided with a tense summer of mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities that the US blamed on Iran. Tehran denied the allegation, though it did seize oil tankers and shoot down a US military surveillance drone.
Iran has regularly threatened to destroy Israel, and has developed ballistic missiles believed in the West to be intended to carry nuclear warheads in the future.
In a leaked recording Tuesday, a senior Israel Defense Forces general was heard warning Israeli treasury officials that Iran could inflict heavy damage if it chooses to attack Israel, and asking for a budget increase for the army to counter the threat.
“There are Iranian Quds forces in the Golan Heights, and that’s not fear-mongering, they’re there,” head of IDF Operations Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva can be heard saying in the remarks carried by the Kan public broadcaster.
“All signs are indicating that…2020 has the potential to be an unfavorable year from a security perspective,” he said, noting Iran’s expansion of its missile capabilities in recent years and their recent use against Saudi oil facilities.