Iran said Thursday it plans to install 1,000 new centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility within three months and that its scientists had exceeded previous goals for uranium enrichment.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, made the announcement about the centrifuges while Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf visited the Fordo nuclear facility, an underground site near the city of Qom.
Natanz is Iran’s main nuclear enrichment plant. An explosion at the site last year, which foreign media reports have attributed to Israel or the US, damaged an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant.
Qalibaf said during the visit that in less than a month, Iranian scientists made more than 17 kilograms (37.5 pounds) of 20% enriched uranium. Qalibaf’s speech and Kamalvandi’s comments about the centrifuges were broadcast by Iranian state media.
Uranium enriched to 20% is a short technical step away from weapons-grade 90% enrichment. Western nations have criticized Iran’s enrichment activity and called on Tehran to adhere to its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers.
Iran has said it would produce 120 kilograms (44 pounds) of 20% enriched uranium per year, or 12 kilograms per month on average, so 17 kilograms would exceed that timetable.
The development brings Iran closer to crossing the line between nuclear operations with a potential civilian use, such as enriching nuclear fuel for power-generating reactors, and nuclear-weapons work, something Tehran has long denied ever carrying out.
Roughly 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of 20% enriched uranium are needed to convert it into 25 kilograms of the 90% enriched needed for a nuclear weapon.
The announcements came as tensions between Iran and the US remain high, with the top envoys from each country engaging in a war of words in recent days.
Former US president Donald Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew America from Iran’s nuclear deal, in which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. The US then ramped up sanctions and Iran gradually and publicly abandoned the deal’s limits on its nuclear development.
US President Joe Biden, who was vice president when the deal was signed during the Obama administration, has said he hopes to return the US to the deal if Iran returns to compliance.
The Biden administration’s policy on Iran is expected to be a point of contention between the new US administration and Israel.
Israeli officials have voiced strong objections to the US rejoining the nuclear deal, and have also issued threats against Iran in recent weeks.
IDF chief Aviv Kohavi issued a rare public criticism of the US plans on Tuesday and said that he had ordered the military to develop operational plans for striking Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s aggressive moves in recent months were believed to be partially aimed at increasing its leverage ahead of negotiations with Biden.
The Biden administration has pledged to consult with Israel and its other Middle East allies before making decisions regarding Iran.