European powers on Wednesday expressed “grave concern” over Iran’s move to boost uranium enrichment to 60 percent in response to what Tehran says was an attack by Israel against a key nuclear facility.
Britain, France, and Germany said the announcement was “particularly regrettable” at a time when talks have resumed in Vienna, including with the United States, to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which Washington backed out of under Donald Trump.
“This is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon,” the three countries said in a statement.
They said that the start of talks on reviving the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers have been “substantive,” with the aim of finding “a rapid diplomatic solution.”
But they added that Iran’s recent moves were “contrary to the constructive spirit and good faith of these discussions.”
The step will bring Iran closer to the 90% purity threshold for military use and shorten its potential “breakout time” to build an atomic bomb — a goal the Islamic republic denies.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday accused Israel of “nuclear terrorism,” after a blast early Sunday knocked out electricity at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement, but reports in the country said it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency, citing unnamed intelligence sources.
In a possible reference to the attack, the statement by the European powers said: “In light of recent developments, we reject all escalatory measures by any actor, and we call upon Iran not to further complicate the diplomatic process.”
Despite the Iranian announcement that it will begin enriching at 60% by next week, an Israeli TV report on Tuesday said that Iran will only be able to enrich very small quantities at that level since Natanz is still out of commission following Sunday’s attack.
Channel 13 analyst Alon Ben David said that despite Iranian officials’ vow to begin the higher enrichment process, they cannot do it at Natanz, since the 6,000 centrifuges there remain inoperable. There are 1,000 centrifuges at Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility that can enrich to 60% in very small quantities, which did not appear to constitute a significant threat, the Israeli analyst said.
A senior Iranian official confirmed Tuesday that the blast at the Natanz nuclear facility destroyed or damaged thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Alireza Zakani, the hardline head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.
Iran has threatened Israel over the strike. In a possible first retaliation, an Israeli-owned ship was attacked in the Gulf of Oman Tuesday.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said it will return to the 2015 nuclear deal if Iran first returns to compliance. Iran has taken a hardline approach, demanding the US lift all sanctions against it first, putting the two sides at a stalemate.
The nuclear talks in Vienna were set to resume Wednesday, but Russia’s ambassador to the UN said they had been postponed by a day. Russia is a signatory of the deal.
Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have adamantly opposed the US returning to the nuclear deal, putting Jerusalem at odds with the new White House administration.
US and Israeli security officials held a bilateral strategic group meeting aimed at collaborating in the effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon on Tuesday. The US stressed its commitment to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran during the virtual discussion and invited Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to visit Washington in the coming weeks.