Iran informs UN it will raise enrichment to 60%, its highest-ever levels

Nuclear negotiator also says 1,000 more centrifuges will be installed at Natanz nuclear facility, the site of a recent attack blamed on Israel

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, speaks with media while visiting the Natanz enrichment facility, in central Iran, November 4, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, speaks with media while visiting the Natanz enrichment facility, in central Iran, November 4, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran will begin enriching uranium to 60 percent purity, higher than the program ever has before, after an attack on its Natanz nuclear facility, an Iranian nuclear negotiator said Tuesday.

Abbas Araghchi was quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency as saying that Iran would increase its enrichment from its current rate of 20% in response to the weekend attack on its Natanz nuclear facility, which has been blamed on Israel. That would put Iran a short technical step away from weapons-grade levels.

The International Atomic Energy Agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Press TV, the Iranian state television’s English-language arm, said the IAEA had been informed that the enrichment would begin Wednesday.

The broadcaster also quoted Araghchi as saying Iran would install another 1,000 centrifuges at Natanz, without elaborating.

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)

The announcement comes after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned Tuesday morning that the attack on its main nuclear enrichment site at Natanz could hurt ongoing negotiations over its tattered atomic deal with world powers.

Those talks are aimed at finding a way for the United States to re-enter the agreement, the goal of which is to limit Iran’s enrichment of uranium in exchange for relief on sanctions.

The US has insisted it had nothing to do with Sunday’s sabotage at the Natanz nuclear facility. Instead, Israel is widely believed to have carried out the assault that damaged centrifuges, though it has not claimed it. But Zarif still issued a warning to Washington.

“Americans should know that neither sanctions nor sabotage actions would provide them with an instrument for talks,” Zarif said in Tehran alongside visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “They should know that these actions would only make the situation difficult for them.”

Zarif separately renewed his earlier warning to Israel over the sabotage, saying that if Iran determines the Jewish state was behind it, “then Israel will get its response and will see what a stupid thing it has done.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses in a conference in Tehran, Iran, February 23, 2021. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Kayhan, a hardline Tehran newspaper, urged Iran to “walk out of the Vienna talks, suspend all nuclear commitments, retaliate against Israel and identify and dismantle the domestic infiltration network behind the sabotage.”

“Despite evidence that shows the role of the US as main instigator of nuclear sabotage against Iran, unfortunately some statesmen, by purging the US of responsibility, [aid] Washington’s crimes against the people of Iran,” the paper said in Tuesday’s editions.

While Kayhan is a small-circulation newspaper, its editor-in-chief, Hossein Shariatmadari, was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has been described as an adviser to him in the past.

Such a walkout remains unlikely as the administration of President Hassan Rouhani, whose main diplomatic achievement was the 2015 accord, hopes to get the US to rejoin it and provide desperately needed sanctions relief. However, pressure does appear to be growing within Iran’s theocracy over how to respond to the attack.

The talks in Vienna — among Iran, world powers still in the deal and the US — are aimed at reviving America’s role in the agreement that former US president Donald Trump abandoned and lifting the sanctions he imposed. Iran, in turn, would return to the limits set by the deal and dilute its growing stockpile of uranium — some of which has been enriched up to a short step away from weapons-grade levels.

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. However, the deal prevents it from having enough of a uranium stockpile to be able to pursue a nuclear weapon.

This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on April 7, 2021 (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Rouhani met later Tuesday with Lavrov and stressed the importance of all parties returning to the deal. Russia is a member of the nuclear deal.

“We are neither ready to accept less than that, nor are we after achieving more than that,” he said.

Details remained scarce about what happened at Natanz. The event was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began referring to it as an attack.

The extent of the damage at Natanz also remains unclear, though Iran’s Foreign Ministry said it damaged some of Iran’s first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, the workhorse of its nuclear program. A former Iranian Revolutionary Guard chief said Tuesday that the assault set off a fire while a civilian nuclear program spokesman mentioned a “possible minor explosion.”

In remarks aired late Monday by state television, the former head of the country’s civilian nuclear arm called the attack’s design “very beautiful.” It appeared to target both the power grid at Natanz, as well as the facility’s emergency backup power, Fereydoun Abbasi said.

Abbasi said a similar attack targeted Iran’s underground Fordo facility in 2012 with two explosions: one 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) away at a power station and the other at Fordo’s emergency battery system.

“We had predicted that, and we were using a separate power grid,” Abbasi said. “They hit but nothing happened for our machines.”

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