Iran confirmed Tuesday that it was now enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, well beyond the threshold set by its 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, sparking international concern.
The move at its underground Fordo facility was verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN watchdog.
It was the most striking violation yet of Iranian commitments under the landmark deal, a process it started in 2019 in response to US President Donald Trump’s dramatic withdrawal from the accord the previous year.
“At around 7 p.m. (local time Monday), we reached 20 percent” enrichment, spokesman Behrouz Kamalavandi told state television in an interview aired on Tuesday.
Announcing the move on Monday, government spokesman Ali Rabiei said President Hassan Rouhani had ordered the enrichment “in recent days” in line with a law passed last month by the conservative-dominated parliament.
The law “for the lifting of sanctions and protection of the Iranian people’s interests” mandates Rouhani’s government to “produce and store 120 kilograms (265 pounds) per year of uranium enriched to 20 percent.”
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that “we resumed 20% enrichment as legislated by our parliament,” adding that the IAEA had been “duly notified.”
He stressed that Tehran took the step “after years of non-compliance” by other parties and that “our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.”
The step comes less than three weeks before the end of the presidency of Trump, who has sought to economically punish and diplomatically isolate Iran with a “maximum pressure” campaign, including tough sanctions.
The outgoing administration deplored Iran’s plan to step up uranium enrichment.
“Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent at Fordow is a clear attempt to increase its campaign of nuclear extortion, an attempt that will continue to fail,” a US State Department spokesperson said.
The Iranian government has signaled a readiness to engage with US President-elect Joe Biden, who has expressed willingness to return to diplomacy with Tehran and takes office on January 20.
Iran’s return to enrichment of uranium to 20% purity has triggered international concern because it is seen as a significant step toward the 90% level required for a nuclear weapon.
The IAEA confirmed that “Iran today began feeding uranium already enriched up to 4.1 percent U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment up to 20 percent.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted angrily and charged that the move proved Iran is seeking to build an atomic bomb.
“Iran’s decision to continue violating its commitments, to raise the enrichment level and advance the industrial ability to enrich uranium underground, cannot be explained in any way except as the continued realization of its intention to develop a military nuclear program,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
“Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons.”
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,” he 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 European Union said Iran’s enrichment program would be a “considerable departure” from the deal.
Russia’s envoy to the IAEA said that Moscow is “not enthusiastic” about Tehran’s move but emphasized that “there is nothing to overdramatize.”
“The nuclear program remains fully transparent and verifiable,” Mikhail Ulyanov wrote on Twitter. “We should focus on means to restore comprehensive implementation of the nuclear deal.”
Bound by law
Iran had on December 31 informed the IAEA that it would begin producing uranium enriched to up to 20%, the level it had before the nuclear deal was reached.
According to the latest IAEA report available, published in November, Tehran was previously enriching uranium to levels greater than the limit provided for in the 2015 Vienna agreement (3.67%) but not exceeding the 4.5% threshold, and still complied with the agency’s strict inspection regime.
Uranium enriched to 20% is far below the 90% needed to construct nuclear bombs, but the jump from 20% to 90% is 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% 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.”
Quoted by the government’s website, Iranian government spokesman Rabiei said that the administration’s stance toward the law is clear, “but the government considers itself bound to carry out the law.”