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Iran dismisses Vienna nuclear deal offers as ‘not worth looking at’

As negotiations thrown into disarray following Natanz facility sabotage, supreme leader Khamenei warns the US time could be running out

In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wearing a protective face mask, attends a meeting in Tehran, Iran, April 14, 2021. (Office of the Iranian supreme leader via AP)
In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wearing a protective face mask, attends a meeting in Tehran, Iran, April 14, 2021. (Office of the Iranian supreme leader via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday dismissed initial offers being made at talks in Vienna aimed at saving Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers. He described them as “not worth looking at” after an attack on an atomic site in his country.

The comments by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state in the Islamic Republic, come as informal talks in Vienna continue ahead of a planned formal round of negotiations.

The talks already have been thrown into disarray by a weekend attack on Iran’s main nuclear enrichment site suspected to have been carried out by Israel. Tehran retaliated by announcing it would enrich uranium up to 60%.

“The offers they provide are usually arrogant and humiliating (and) are not worth looking at,” Khamenei said in an address marking the first day of Ramadan in Iran.

While saying he remained positive about Iran’s negotiators, he criticized the US and warned time could be running out.

“The talks shouldn’t become talks of attrition,” Khamenei said. “They shouldn’t be in a way that parties drag on and prolong the talks. This is harmful to the country.”

Also on Wednesday, Iran’s president called his country’s decision to dramatically increase its uranium enrichment after saboteurs attacked a nuclear site “an answer to your evilness,” saying Israel hoped to derail ongoing talks aimed at reviving Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

President Hassan Rouhani, second right, is shown new centrifuges and listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

This weekend’s sabotage at the Natanz nuclear facility appears to be part of an escalating shadow war between the two countries. Israeli authorities have not commented on the attack, but are widely suspected of having carried it out.

Iran announced Tuesday it would increase uranium enrichment up to 60%, its highest level ever, in response to the attack. That could draw further retaliation as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed never to allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon. While Iran’s move keeps enrichment below weapons-grade levels of 90%, it is a short step away.

Speaking to his Cabinet, an impassioned President Hassan Rouhani said the first-generation IR-1 centrifuges that were damaged in the attack would be replaced by advanced IR-6 centrifuges that enrich uranium much faster.

“You wanted to make our hands empty during the talks but our hands are full,” Rouhani said.

He was referring to ongoing talks in Vienna that are aimed at finding a way for the United States to re-enter Tehran’s nuclear agreement with world powers and have Iran comply again with its limits. The accord, from which former President Donald Trump withdrew the US in 2018, prevented Iran from stockpiling enough high-enriched uranium to be able to pursue a nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Rouhani added: “60% enrichment is an answer to your evilness. … We cut off both of your hands, one with IR-6 centrifuges and another one with 60%.”

Rouhani also accused Israel of being behind the Natanz attack.

Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on April 7, 2021 (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

“Apparently this is a crime by the Zionists. If the Zionists take an action against our nation, we will respond,” he said, without elaborating.

In Jerusalem at a Memorial Day commemoration, Netanyahu appeared to reference Iran.

“We must never remain apathetic to the threats of war and extermination of those who seek to eliminate us,” he said.

Rouhani in his comments Wednesday insisted Iran is still hoping that the Vienna talks lead to a negotiated settlement over its program — and the accompanying lifting of punishing sanctions.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, all parties to the nuclear deal, issued a joint statement Wednesday expressing their “grave concern” over Iran’s decision to increase enrichment.

“This is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon,” the countries said. “Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level.”

China and Russia also took part in the deal.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also called Iran’s enrichment decision a “provocative announcement.”

“It calls into question Iran’s seriousness of purpose in the nuclear talks,” he said in Brussels.

Saudi Arabia, a regional rival to Iran, similarly issued a statement, saying enriching at that level “could not be considered a program intended for peaceful purposes.”

“The kingdom calls on Iran to avoid escalation and not to subject the security and stability of the region to more tension, and to engage seriously in the current negotiations,” Saudi Arabia said.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, though the West and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Tehran had an organized military nuclear program up until the end of 2003. An annual US intelligence report released Tuesday maintained the American assessment that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.”

The Iranian flag waves outside of the UN building that hosts the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, office inside in Vienna, Austria, July 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Iran previously had said it could use uranium enriched up to 60% for nuclear-powered ships. However, the Islamic Republic currently has no such ships in its navy.

Iran had been enriching up to 20% — and even that was a short technical step to weapons-grade levels.

Officials initially said the enrichment would begin Wednesday. However, an early Wednesday morning tweet from Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, suggested it might come later.

He later posted a letter addressed to IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi warning against “any adventurism by (the) Israeli regime” against Iranian nuclear sites.

“The most recent cowardly act of nuclear terrorism will only strengthen our determination to march forward and to replace all (damaged) centrifuges with even more advanced and sophisticated machines,” Gharibabadi wrote.

IAEA inspectors visited Natanz on Wednesday on their first trip since the sabotage, the agency said, without elaborating on what they found.

The weekend attack at Natanz was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began calling it an attack.

Alireza Zakani, the hard-line 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.

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