US accuses Iran of ‘nuclear extortion’ as Tehran expands enrichment at key plant

State Dept.: Iran’s move will ‘deepen its political, economic isolation’; Tehran brags of heavy water sales contravening sanctions; bans cooperation with outlawed UK cultural body

A technician at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, February 3, 2007. (AP/Vahid Salemi/File)
A technician at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, February 3, 2007. (AP/Vahid Salemi/File)

The United States accused Iran on Tuesday of “nuclear extortion” and vowed no let-up in pressure after the clerical regime said it would resume uranium enrichment at the key Fordo plant.

“Iran has no credible reason to expand its uranium enrichment program, at the Fordo facility or elsewhere, other than a clear attempt at nuclear extortion that will only deepen its political and economic isolation,” a State Department spokesperson said.

“We will continue to impose maximum pressure on the regime until it abandons its destabilizing behavior, including proliferation-sensitive work.”

The comments came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “never let Iran develop nuclear weapons.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a KKL-JNF hosted a gala dinner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Jerusalem on November 05, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

‏”Iran expands its aggression everywhere. It seeks to envelop Israel. It seeks to threaten Israel. It seeks to destroy Israel,” Netanyahu said at an event in Jerusalem.

Iran has regularly threatened to destroy Israel, and has developed ballistic missiles believed in the West to be intended to carry nuclear warheads in the future.

In a leaked recording Tuesday, a senior Israel Defense Forces general was heard warning Israeli treasury officials that Iran could inflict heavy damage if it chooses to attack Israel, and asking for a budget increase for the army to counter the threat.

President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that Iran would resume enrichment at the plant near the Shiite holy city of Qom that was suspended under a 2015 nuclear accord with the United States and five other powers.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani gives a press conference in Tehran, Iran, October 14, 2019. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

It was the latest action by Iran to seek tangible benefits from the deal, from which the United States withdrew as President Donald Trump imposed sweeping sanctions aimed at reducing Tehran’s regional role.

The State Department said it would await verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog which stepped up inspection under the 2015 accord.

The development is significant as the centrifuges previously spun empty, without gas injection, under the accord. It also increases pressure on European nations that remain in the accord, which has all but collapsed.

A statement carried in Iranian media later Tuesday said enrichment would go to five percent beginning Wednesday, when the centrifuges at Fordo would be injected with uranium gas.

Rouhani’s remarks, carried live on Iranian state television, came a day after Tehran’s nuclear program chief said the country had doubled the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation.

This photo taken on October 26, 2010, shows the inside of reactor at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran. (HAMED MALEKPOUR/FARS NEWS AGENCY/AFP)

The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the enrichment increase would be carried out in front of inspectors from the IAEA which is monitoring Iran’s compliance with the deal, according to Iran’s Mehr news.

“Salehi said that it had been decided that there will not be [20%] uranium enrichment at Fordo for the time being,” the Iranian outlet reported.

A day earlier, Salehi said Iran was producing 20 tons of heavy water annually and was selling it to foreign states in contravention of sanctions, according to a report by the Fars news agency. He did not clarify which countries were the recipients of the heavy water, which is used in nuclear reactors.

Under the 2015 nuclear accord, Iran was limited to enriching uranium up to 3.67%, which is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade level of 90%. This summer, it began surpassing this level, in violation of the agreement, up to 4.5%, as a form of retaliation toward the United States, which has been steadily imposing sanctions on Iran since the White House pulled out of the nuclear deal last year.

There was no immediate reaction from the IAEA to Tuesday’s announcements.

The European Union on Monday called on Iran to return to the deal, while the White House sanctioned members of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s inner circle as part of its maximalist campaign against Tehran.

Britain’s Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said Iran’s reduced compliance with the nuclear deal “pose a risk to our national security.”

But Iran on Tuesday announced a ban on any cooperation with the British Council, the UK’s cultural and educational organization, which operates branches around the world.

“Britain which has a long record of infiltration and starting networks and streams in different countries aimed to implement a project to create a cultural network,” Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said according to Fars. “Any cooperation with the British Council is prohibited and will result in prosecution.”

In May, Iran sentenced British Council employee Aras Amiri, who was on a trip to visit relatives in the country, to 10 years in prison for spying. Iranian authorities shut down the British Council’s office in Tehran more than a decade ago.

In this June 6, 2018 frame grab from the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, three versions of domestically-built centrifuges are shown in a live TV program from Natanz, an Iranian uranium enrichment plant, in Iran (IRIB via AP)

Rouhani stressed the steps taken so far, including going beyond the deal’s enrichment and stockpile limitations, could be reversed if Europe offers a way for it to avoid US sanctions choking off its crude oil sales abroad.

The centrifuges at Fordo are IR-1s, Iran’s first-generation centrifuges. The nuclear deal let those at Fordo to spin without uranium gas, while allowing up to 5,060 at its Natanz facility to enrich uranium.

A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. An IR-6 centrifuge can produce enriched uranium 10 times faster than an IR-1, Iranian officials say.

In this January 13, 2015, file photo released by the Iranian President’s Office, President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno)

Iranian scientists also are working on a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50 times faster than the IR-1, Salehi said Monday.

Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilograms (11 pounds), Salehi said. Iran now holds over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, Salehi said. The deal had limited Iran to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).

The collapse of the nuclear deal coincided with a tense summer of mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities that the US blamed on Iran. Tehran denied the allegation, though it did seize oil tankers and shoot down a US military surveillance drone.

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