Iran has tripled its capacity to enrich uranium to 60 percent purity, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency said Friday, as Tehran remains at odds with the West over its nuclear program.
Uranium enriched to 60% purity is a short technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.
Iran said last month that it had moved ahead on uranium enrichment that Western governments worry is part of a covert nuclear weapons program.
“Iran informed us they were tripling, not doubling, tripling their capacity to enrich uranium at 60%, which is very close to military level, which is 90%” the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi said at a press conference in Rome.
“This is not banal. This is something that has consequences. It gives them an inventory of nuclear material for which it cannot be excluded… that there might be another use. We need to go. We need to verify,” he said, according to Reuters.
Iran said last month that the enrichment was being carried out at its underground Fordo plant using advanced IR-6 centrifuges, and was a response to an IAEA resolution criticizing Tehran’s lack of cooperation with the nuclear watchdog.
Under the terms of its 2015 agreement with world powers, Iran is only permitted to enrich uranium to 3.67% purity. That deal gave Iran sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear program to prevent the production of a weapon.
The deal also called for Fordo to become a research-and-development facility and restricted centrifuges there, used to spin enriched uranium into higher levels of purity, to non-nuclear uses.
The US last month expressed “deep concern” over Iran’s progress on its nuclear program and ballistic missile capabilities.
“We’re going to make sure we have all options available to the president,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said. “We certainly have not changed our view that we will not allow Iran to achieve a nuclear weapons capability.”
In a joint statement, Britain, France and Germany said Iran was moving “well beyond” limits set down in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name of the 2015 deal.
By enriching uranium up to 60%, Iran was challenging global non-proliferation, they said.
“This step, which carries significant proliferation-related risks, has no credible civilian justification,” the European countries said.
Grossi also said Friday that Iran was still in conflict with the IAEA. The two sides have long been at odds as Iran has blocked inspectors from visiting suspicious sites and withheld information from the agency.
The IAEA is seeking an explanation from Iran for uranium traces that were discovered at three undeclared sites. The IAEA previously said Iran had agreed to allow UN inspectors to visit in November but the meeting has not taken place.
“We don’t seem to be seeing eye-to-eye with Iran over their obligations to the IAEA,” Grossi said. “We need to put our relationship back on track.”
The heavily protected Fordo plant around 110 miles (190 kilometers) south of Tehran was built deep underground in a bid to shield it from air or missile strikes by Iran’s enemies.
In September, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the enrichment capacity had tripled at Fordo over the past year, months after Iran said it had begun enriching uranium to 20% purity at the plant.
Last month, Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva said Iran has made “significant progress” toward producing 90% enriched uranium.
“The moment is coming when the greatest test of the international community will come to light, when Iran entertains [the idea of] enrichment at 90%, even if only symbolically,” he said.
The IAEA reported in July that Iran had 43 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60% purity at other sites, enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon if Iran chose to pursue it.
However, Iran still would need to design a bomb and a delivery system for it, likely a months-long project.
Talks seeking to revive the nuclear deal have stalled, alongside international condemnation of Tehran’s heavy-handed response to domestic protests.
The deal collapsed after Washington’s unilateral withdrawal in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump.
Israel has long opposed the nuclear accord, saying it delayed rather than ended Iran’s nuclear progress and arguing that sanctions relief empowered Tehran’s proxy militias across the region, with expected incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu coming out strongly against the deal.