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'Now, any enrichment level is possible if we decide it'

Iran enriches uranium to 60%, a short step from weapons grade levels

Top nuclear official says centrifuges producing 9 grams an hour, days after attack, blamed on Israel, at Natanz; E3: Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level

A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidential office on Saturday, April 10, shows a video conference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant (Iranian Presidency/AFP)
A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidential office on Saturday, April 10, shows a video conference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant (Iranian Presidency/AFP)

Iranian scientists have successfully enriched uranium to 60 percent purity, its highest ever levels, senior Iranian officials declared on Friday.

Iran’s Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf first made the announcement on Twitter, five days after an attack at its Natanz nuclear facility that Iran has blamed on Israel.

“The will of the Iranian nation is a miracle-maker and it will defuse any conspiracy,” state television quoted Qalibaf as saying. He said the enrichment began just after midnight Friday.

The development was confirmed by Iran’s top nuclear official, who said the  process was conducted at Natanz.

“The enrichment of uranium to 60 percent is underway at the Martyr Ahmadi Roshan nuclear facility” in Natanz, Ali Akbar Salehi of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was quoted as saying by state media.

In this photo released on Nov. 4, 2019, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the organization, speaks at a news conference after visiting Natanz enrichment facility, in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Salehi said the centrifuges now produce 9 grams an hour, but that would drop to 5 grams an hour in the coming days.

“Now, any enrichment [level] is possible if we decide it,” Salehi said.

State TV later referred to the decision as a “show of power against terrorist roguery.” Mahmoud Vaezi, the chief of staff for Iran’s president, similarly said it sent the message that Iran’s atomic program ”will not be stopped through the assassination of nuclear scientists and sabotage in nuclear facilities.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s nuclear program, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, it sent its inspectors to Natanz and confirmed Iran was preparing to begin 60% enrichment at an above-ground facility at the site.

The Natanz attack, which reportedly damaged thousands of centrifuges at the facility, appeared to be part of an escalating shadow war between Israel and Iran. Israeli authorities have not commented on the attack, for which Tehran has vowed revenge.

The move to increase enrichment could draw further retaliation, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed never to allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon.

The aftermath of an explosion and a fire at an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, July 5, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

While Iran’s move keeps enrichment below weapons-grade levels of 90%, it is a short step away. Iran had been enriching up to 20% — and even that was a short technical step to weapons-grade levels.

Iran, which insists its nuclear program is peaceful, 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.

Israel is adamant that Iran is seeking a nuclear arsenal and duping the west. Iran frequently vows to destroy Israel.

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 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.

The New York Times reported that the blast was caused by a bomb that was smuggled into the plant and then detonated remotely. The report cited an unnamed intelligence official, without specifying whether they were American or Israeli. This official also specified that the blast took out Natanz’s primary electrical system as well as its backup.

In this photo released on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019 by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the organization, speaks with media while visiting Natanz enrichment facility, in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Salehi, claimed  Monday that emergency power had already been restored at the plant and enrichment was continuing.

“A large portion of the enemy’s sabotage can be restored, and this train cannot be stopped,” he told Iranian media, according to the Times.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry said it damaged some of Iran’s first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, the workhorse of its nuclear program.

Iranian 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)

Speaking to his cabinet on Wednesday, an impassioned President Hassan Rouhani said that 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.

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.”

“You wanted to make our hands empty during the talks but our hands are full,” Rouhani said, accusing Israel of being behind the Natanz attack.

He was referring to ongoing talks in Vienna that are aimed at finding a way for the United States to reenter 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.

The latest round of diplomatic negotiations aimed at ensuring the US’s return to the accord lasted for roughly two hours on Thursday afternoon, with Russia’s ambassador to the UN in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeting afterwards that the “general impression is positive.”

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, in an image released on November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

Israeli officials, led by Netanyahu, have adamantly opposed the US returning to the nuclear deal, putting Jerusalem at odds with the new White House administration.

Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday dismissed initial offers being made at the talks in Vienna, describing them as “not worth looking at.”

“The offers they provide are usually arrogant and humiliating (and) are not worth looking at,” Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state in the Islamic Republic, 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.”

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

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

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.”

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

An Israeli TV report on Tuesday night said that Iran will only be able to enrich very small quantities of uranium to 60% since Natanz is still out of commission following the Sunday attack.

Channel 13 analyst Alon Ben David said that despite Iranian officials’ vow to start preparing Wednesday to begin the higher enrichment process, they cannot do it at Natanz, since the 6,000 centrifuges there remain “out of action.”

There are 1,000 centrifuges at Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility that can enrich to 60% in very small quantities, the Israeli analyst said, describing the Iranian threat of higher enrichment, therefore, as unlikely to be significant.

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