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IAEA says Iran has almost completed preparations for 60% uranium enrichment

UN agency confirms Natanz facility will begin increasing operations shortly, days after sabotage said to have damaged thousands of centrifuges

FILE: A flag is flown at half-staff in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) building in Vienna, Austria, July 22, 2019. The IAEA lowered the flag to mourn the death of the agency's Director-General Yukiya Amano at the age of 72. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)
FILE: A flag is flown at half-staff in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) building in Vienna, Austria, July 22, 2019. The IAEA lowered the flag to mourn the death of the agency's Director-General Yukiya Amano at the age of 72. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

The International Atomic Energy Agency announced Wednesday that Iran had “almost completed preparations” to begin enriching uranium to 60 percent purity at the Natanz nuclear facility.

“The Agency today verified that Iran had almost completed preparations to start producing UF6 enriched up to 60% U-235 at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant,” the nuclear watchdog said, according to Reuters.

Iran had announced Tuesday it would ramp up uranium enrichment up to 60%, its highest level ever, in response to this weekend’s sabotage at the facility.

The attack, which reportedly damaged thousands of centrifuges at the facility, appeared to be part of an escalating shadow war between Israel and Iran. Israeli authorities have not commented on the attack, for which Tehran has vowed revenge.

The move to increase enrichment could draw further retaliation, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed never to allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon. While Iran’s move keeps enrichment below weapons-grade levels of 90%, it is a short step away.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, second right, is shown new centrifuges and listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Speaking to his cabinet, an impassioned President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that the first-generation IR-1 centrifuges that were damaged in the attack would be replaced by advanced IR-6 centrifuges that enrich uranium much faster.

Iran’s president called his country’s decision to dramatically increase its uranium enrichment after saboteurs attacked a nuclear site “an answer to your evilness.”

“You wanted to make our hands empty during the talks but our hands are full,” Rouhani said, accusing Israel of being behind the Natanz attack.

He was referring to ongoing talks in Vienna that 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, from which former president Donald Trump withdrew the US 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 supreme leader on Wednesday dismissed initial offers being made at the talks in Vienna, describing them as “not worth looking at.”

“The offers they provide are usually arrogant and humiliating (and) are not worth looking at,” Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state in the Islamic Republic, said in an address marking the first day of Ramadan in Iran.

While saying he remained positive about Iran’s negotiators, he 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.”

Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on April 7, 2021 (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

“Apparently this is a crime by the Zionists. If the Zionists take an action against our nation, we will respond,” he said, without elaborating.

In Jerusalem at a Memorial Day commemoration, 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.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, all parties to the nuclear deal, 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.”

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, though the West and the International Atomic Energy Agency say 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.”

The Iranian flag waves outside of the UN building that hosts the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) office in Vienna, Austria, July 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

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.

Iran had been enriching up to 20% — and even that was a short technical step to weapons-grade levels.

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.

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