Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani sought to allay Western concerns on Wednesday over his country’s decision to enrich uranium to 60% purity, saying the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program is “peaceful,” as talks over the battered 2015 nuclear deal resumed in Vienna.
Rouhani said it was a “mistake” for Europe and the United States to express concerns that the move “means we can enrich to 90% in one go.”
“Our nuclear activities are peaceful; we are not seeking to obtain the atomic bomb,” he said in remarks broadcast on state television.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, though its leaders regularly threaten to destroy Israel and the West and the International Atomic Energy Agency says 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.”
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.
France, Germany and the United Kingdom, all parties to the nuclear deal, only hours earlier 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.”
The talks already have been thrown into disarray by this week’s attack on Iran’s main Natanz nuclear enrichment site suspected to have been carried out by Israel. Tehran retaliated by announcing it would enrich uranium up to 60% — higher than it ever has before but still lower than weapons-grade levels of 90%.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday dismissed initial offers at the Vienna talks as “not worth looking at,” attempting to pressure the world powers.
“The offers they provide are usually arrogant and humiliating (and) are not worth looking at,” the 81-year-old Khamenei said in an address marking the first day of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Iran.
He also 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.”
Speaking to his Cabinet on Wednesday, Rouhani said the first-generation IR-1 centrifuges that were damaged in Sunday’s 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. “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%.”
Iran had been enriching up to 20% — even that was a short technical step to weapons-grade levels. The deal limited Iran’s enrichment to 3.67%.
In Jerusalem at a Memorial Day commemoration Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin 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. Israel has not claimed the attack, though it rarely does in its ongoing shadow war against Tehran.
The attack on Natanz came a day after Iran announced it had started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges banned under the 2015 deal limiting its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
While hosting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at his office in Jerusalem, Netanyahu vowed that Israel would never let Iran get nuclear weapons.
In 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the scientist said by Israel and the US to head Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program was assassinated in an ambush near the capital Tehran. Top Iran officials blamed Israel for the killing.
The talks in Vienna 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, which former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from 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.
Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, posted a letter online addressed to IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi warning against “any adventurism by (the) Israeli regime” targeting 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 and found Iran preparing an above-ground area for the higher enrichment, the agency said.
Iran has “almost completed preparations to start producing (uranium gas) enriched up to 60%,” the IAEA said in a later statement. “Iran informed the agency that the necessary pipework was being finalized and that feeding of (uranium gas) enriched up to 5% into a cascade of IR-6 centrifuges would start soon thereafter.”
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.
Satellite photographs from Planet Labs Inc. of Natanz taken Wednesday and analyzed by The Associated Press showed no apparent damage above ground at the facility.