Iran vowed to ramp up its uranium enrichment to close to weapons grade in retaliation for an attack on one of its leading atomic facilities, sending a jolt through big power talks on containing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear work due to resume later this week.
Tehran said it will for the first time begin producing highly enriched uranium -- purified to 60% from current levels of 20% -- from Wednesday in response to the sabotage of its Natanz nuclear site at the weekend, which it has blamed on Israel and called an act of “nuclear terrorism.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency has been informed of the move, state-run Press TV said, quoting Deputy Foreign Ministry Abbas Araghchi. He said 1,000 new centrifuges will be added to the damaged Natanz facility, adding that the purified material would be used for medical purposes. The IAEA didn’t respond to requests for comment.
But raising the level to 60% means Iran’s stockpile could quickly be further enriched to 90% of uranium-235 isotopes, the threshold for weapons manufacture. Until now, Tehran has stopped just short of producing 20%-enriched material -- considered to be low-enriched because of its use in power and research reactors -- and denies it intends to produce atomic warheads.
The move raises the stakes for the next round of talks in Vienna, which will involve the remaining parties to the landmark 2015 nuclear accord, including Iran, China, Russia, and three European nations. Negotiations aim to enable a U.S. return to the deal that then-President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, prompting Iran to cross the limits imposed on its enrichment activity.
So far, there’s been no agreement on how that should happen, after both Washington and Tehran signaled the other must move first. France condemned Iran’s actions, calling it a “serious development.”
The Austrian meetings come against a backdrop of heightened tensions in the energy-producing Persian Gulf, where Iran and proxy groups have been blamed by the U.S. and its allies for attacks on tankers and Saudi energy installations. Iran has also accused Israel of targeting its shipping and killing prominent Iranian atomic scientists.
There’s also been a series of apparently tit-for-tat attacks at sea involving Israeli and Iranian vessels. The latest came on Tuesday, according to Saudi Arabia-backed Al Arabiya TV. It reported that an Israeli-owned ship had been “slightly damaged” after it was hit by an Iranian missile in the Arabian Sea, without saying how it got the information.
The Israeli government opposes the 2015 nuclear deal and doesn’t want the U.S. to lift sanctions on Tehran without a new deal that addresses its ballistic missiles and regional proxy forces that have fought Israel.
As diplomats prepared to meet in Vienna, Iran’s parliament injected fresh uncertainty, saying on Tuesday that the country would need up to six months to ensure it’s benefiting from a lifting of U.S. penalties before it returns to full compliance with the deal.
Removing sanctions “should result in economic benefits” and will require “meticulous verification that can’t be done within hours or days, but in three to six months at the least,” the conservative-dominated assembly’s ICANA news service reported.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has insisted that Iran needs assurances that lifting sanctions will have practical consequences for the economy after the 2015 pact failed to deliver the investment and access to international banking it promised.
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