US, Europe condemn Iran as IAEA confirms uranium enrichment ramping up

White House says ‘all options available to the president’ to stop regime’s development of nuclear weapon, as UK, France and Germany to consult on how to respond to escalation

US National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby answers questions during the daily briefing at the White House, August 1, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images via AFP)
US National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby answers questions during the daily briefing at the White House, August 1, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images via AFP)

The United States expressed “deep concern” Tuesday over progress Iran is making on its nuclear program and ballistic missile capabilities, and European powers accused Tehran of ramping up uranium enrichment with “no credible civilian justification.”

The remarks came hours after Tehran said it has begun enriching uranium to 60 percent at the Fordo underground facility, putting it a short technical step away from having weapons-grade material.

“We’re going to make sure we have all options available to the president,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told a briefing in Washington.

“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, a 2015 deal designed to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Iran has now “taken further significant steps in hollowing out the JCPOA,” the European governments said in a joint statement.

Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaks to journalists after the IAEA’s board of governors meeting at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria, on November 16, 2022. (Joe Klamar/AFP)

By enriching uranium up to 60% at its Fordo plant, Iran was challenging global non-proliferation, they said.

“This step, which carries significant proliferation-related risks, has no credible civilian justification,” the E3 countries said.

“We will continue to consult, alongside international partners, on how best to address Iran’s continued nuclear escalation.”

Iran said Tuesday that it had moved ahead on uranium enrichment that Western governments worry is part of a covert nuclear weapons program.

The International Atomic Energy Agency later confirmed the move and said Tuesday that its chief, Rafael Grossi, had reported the development to its member states.

Iran’s announcement was part of its response to the UN nuclear watchdog’s adoption last week of a censure motion drafted by Western governments accusing it of non-cooperation.

“Iran has started producing uranium enriched to 60% at the Fordo plant for the first time,” Iran’s ISNA news agency reported, a development then confirmed by Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran chief Mohammad Eslami.

An atomic bomb requires uranium enriched to 90%, and 60% is a significant step toward weapons-grade enrichment.

A satellite image from September 15, 2017, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)

The enrichment was being carried out using the advanced IR-6 centrifuges at the facility, and was a response to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s resolution last week criticizing Tehran’s lack of cooperation with the nuclear watchdog, according to Iranian state media cited by Reuters.

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.

Under the terms of the 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.

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.

On Sunday, 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.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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