TEHRAN — An Iranian government spokesman said Tehran has begun enriching uranium up to 20% at an underground facility, prompting a warning from Israel.
The state-run IRNA news agency on Monday quoted Ali Rabiei saying President Hassan Rouhani had given the order for the move at the Fordo facility.
Enrichment at 20% is a short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.
In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the move proved that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and that Israel would not allow this.
“Iran’s decision to continue violating its commitments, raise the level of enrichment and advance its industrial capacities for underground uranium enrichment can not be explained in any way other than the further realization of its plans to develop a military nuclear program,” he said.
“Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons,” said Netanyahu.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz similarly said Jerusalem would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
“Iran is a challenge to the world, to the region and to the State of Israel. The defense establishment and all its organizations must continue tracking this matter, and the State of Israel cannot allow Iran to go nuclear and to be allowed to advance its other ambitions,” Gantz said.
“The entire world must step up its pressure, and we must ensure that the defense establishment has the resources needed so that we can be prepared to deal with Iran as necessary on all fronts. We are working with many partners on all fronts and we must continue this trend,” Gantz added.
The US State Department criticized Iran’s move as a “clear attempt to increase its campaign of nuclear extortion.”
“The United States and the rest of the international community will assess Iran’s actions,” the State Department said. “We have confidence that the IAEA will monitor and report on any new Iranian nuclear activities.”
Iran’s decision to begin enriching to 20% a decade ago nearly brought an Israeli strike targeting its nuclear facilities, tensions that only abated with the 2015 atomic deal. A resumption of 20% enrichment could see that brinksmanship return.
The move comes after President Donald Trump withdrew the US unilaterally from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018. In the time since, there have been a series of escalating incidents between the two countries.
Iran informed the UN atomic agency of its plans to step up enrichment last week.
Iran has not enriched to such levels since it entered into the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which capped its enrichment at 3.67%. Tehran has recently broken that limit as the nuclear deal has disintegrated, reaching 4.5%.
Uranium enriched to 20% is far below the 90% needed to construct nuclear bombs, but the jump from 20% to 90% is actually rather quick compared to the work needed to move from 4% to 20%.
Since the assassination in late November of Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which Iran has blamed on Israel, hardliners in Tehran pledged a response and parliament passed a controversial law calling for the production and storage of “at least 120 kilograms per year of 20 percent enriched uranium” and to “put an end” to the IAEA inspections intended to check that the country is not developing an atomic bomb.
The Iranian government opposed the initiative, which was also condemned by the other signatories to the accord who called on Tehran not to “compromise the future.”
Iran has indicated some willingness to return to compliance with the agreement if the US, under incoming president Joe Biden, lifts the sanctions that were put in place after Trump’s withdrawal.
Biden has vowed to re-enter the nuclear agreement if Iran first returns to compliance with it. He has also expressed a desire to negotiate a “longer and stronger” follow-up agreement that would extend the time-limited provisions on the JCPOA, while also addressing Iran’s missile program and curbing the influence of Tehran’s regional proxies.
Iran has rejected any such negotiations.