Tehran, Iran: Iran warned Tuesday it would start enriching uranium up to 60 percent purity, two days after an explosion it blamed on arch-enemy Israel hit its key nuclear facility in Natanz.
The announcement cast a shadow over ongoing talks in Vienna aimed at salvaging the tattered 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that former US President Donald Trump abandoned three years ago.
Iran said it wrote to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to announce “that Iran will start 60 percent enrichment”, a move later confirmed by the IAEA.
The step will bring Iran closer to the 90 percent purity threshold for military use and shorten its potential “breakout time” to build an atomic bomb, a goal it denies.
Under the nuclear deal, Iran had committed to keeping enrichment to 3.67 percent, though it had stepped this up to 20 percent in January.
The latest news came two days after an explosion knocked out power at Iran’s main nuclear facility of Natanz, which the Islamic republic blamed on Israel and labeled an act of “terrorism”.
Israel, which did not claim responsibility, is strongly opposed to US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the nuclear agreement.
The accord between Iran and the UN Security Council’s permanent members plus Germany promised Tehran relief from punishing sanctions in return for agreeing to limits on its nuclear program.
Israel has vowed it will stop Iran from ever building an atomic bomb, which it considers an existential threat to the Jewish state.
The United States said it stood by Israel but remained committed to the Iran talks despite Tehran’s enrichment plan.
“We are certainly concerned about these provocative announcements,” said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
“We believe that the diplomatic path is the only path forward here and that having a discussion, even indirect, is the best way to come to a resolution.”
Israeli-operated ship hit
The mysterious blast at Natanz has sharply heightened tensions between the two powers already engaged in a shadow war on lands and seas across the Middle East.
On Tuesday, an Israeli-operated ship was attacked off the UAE opposite the Iranian coast, Israeli media said, in the latest apparent tit-for-tat.
Security sources, quoted by Israel’s Channel 12 television, said the vessel Hyperion Ray was “lightly damaged” near the Emirati port of Fujairah.
Iran on Monday vowed to take “revenge” for the Natanz attack.
“If (Israel) thought that they can stop Iran from following up on lifting sanctions from the Iranian people, then they made a very bad gamble,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned.
Iran would make the enrichment plant “more powerful” by using advanced centrifuges, he added.
IRNA said Iran would also add “1,000 centrifuges with 50 percent more capacity to the machines present in Natanz, in addition to replacing” those damaged in the attack.
“The preparations (for the implementation of this decision) will begin tonight” in Natanz, said the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).
The 60 percent enriched uranium would be used to “produce molybdenum for use in the manufacture of various radiotherapeutic products”, the organization added.
Zarif, after talks with his visiting Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, also warned Israel’s ally the United States it would gain no extra leverage in Vienna through “acts of sabotage” and sanctions.
The White House has denied all US involvement in the Natanz incident.
Unsourced Israeli media reports attributed the blast to Israeli security services.
The New York Times, quoting unnamed US and Israeli intelligence officials, also said there had been “an Israeli role” in the attack in which an explosion had “completely destroyed” the power system that fed the plant’s “underground centrifuges”.
Quoting another unnamed intelligence source on Tuesday, the NYT said an “explosive device had been smuggled” into the site and “detonated remotely”, taking out primary and backup power.
Europe ‘bowing to US pressure’
Lavrov, during his Tehran visit, stressed Russian support for Iran’s position.
“We are counting on the fact that we will be able to save the agreement and that Washington will finally return to full and complete implementation of the corresponding UN resolution,” Lavrov said.
Zarif blasted Europe’s “inability to implement” its nuclear deal commitments and “bowing to America’s pressure”.
He also condemned the European Union for slapping sanctions on eight Iranian security officials, in response to a crackdown on 2019 street protests, saying the move threatens efforts to restore the deal.
Lavrov’s remarks come at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the West over various issues, also including Ukraine.
President Hassan Rouhani told Lavrov that Iran expects a “return to 2015’s agreements and obligations”.
For now, the agreement remains in limbo, with neither Tehran nor Washington backing down from their positions and each demanding the other make the first move.
Russia’s ambassador to the UN in Vienna said the talks there have been postponed for a day until Thursday.
The United States said it expects the talks to continue.
“We expect and we have not been alerted of any change in planned attendance in meetings that will resume later this week,” said the White House’s Psaki.
What about the 2015 accord?
Iran has accused its nemesis Israel of sabotaging a nuclear enrichment facility purportedly hit by an explosion a day after President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated advanced uranium centrifuges.
What do we know about what happened early on Sunday at Natanz, the nerve center of Iran’s atomic program?
And is dialogue scheduled to resume in Vienna aimed at salvaging the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers still viable?
Ascertaining this is fraught with pitfalls, not least when Iranian authorities have at times offered contradictory narratives, having initially described Sunday’s incident as an “accident”.
Also, while keen to display Saturday’s inauguration of more powerful centrifuges, Iranian media have not published any post-incident video images or photographs of the site.
The “sabotage occurred in a duct of power cables leading to the centrifuge machines which caused damage to this system”, government spokesman Ali Rabiei said Tuesday.
“This was not an external attack and the location of the sabotage has been clearly determined,” he added.
The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) said the previous day a “small explosion” had hit the plant’s electricity distribution centre, causing damage that would be quickly repaired.
But Iran’s foreign ministry accused Israel of an act of “terrorism” and vowed vengeance at a time and place of Tehran’s choosing.
The New York Times, quoting unnamed US and Israeli intelligence officials, also said there had been “an Israeli role” in the attack.
The paper said an explosion had “completely destroyed” the power system that fed the site’s “underground centrifuges”.
Washington denied any involvement.
Why is Natanz important?
The Natanz nuclear site is a key center for Iran’s nuclear program and is kept under extremely high security.
The 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran, the five permanent UN Security Council powers, and Germany placed key restrictions on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions.
It capped uranium enrichment — measured by the presence of fissile isotope Uranium-235 — at 3.67 percent.
It also limited the number of so-called first-generation centrifuges, the only type permitted.
But Iran has been producing uranium enriched up to 20 percent since January, adding to earlier steps away from its commitments in response to the US in 2018 pulling out of the deal and reimposing biting sanctions.
The alleged sabotage took place less than 24 hours after Iran announced it had brought into service or begun testing several hundred centrifuges forbidden under the 2015 agreement.
In July 2020, an advanced centrifuge assembly factory at Natanz was badly damaged by a mysterious explosion, likewise described as a “terrorist” act by Tehran.
Alongside the new centrifuges themselves, Rouhani had on Saturday inaugurated a new centrifuge assembly factory at Natanz.
What’s the upshot?
In Iran, conservatives have vociferously attacked Rouhani’s moderate reformist government and demanded that dialogue in Vienna aimed at rescuing the 2015 deal be ditched.
Seeking to bring the US back into the deal and persuade Iran to re-embrace its commitments, talks in the Austrian capital had got underway on April 6 on a positive note.
The negotiations involve the remaining parties — Iran, China, Russia, Germany, the UK and France — with the EU acting as an additional go-between between Washington and Tehran.
Iranian state television announced Tuesday afternoon that deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi had left for Vienna ahead of a resumption of talks planned for Wednesday.
But early in the evening, Iran announced that it would begin to enrich uranium to 60 percent.
Eric Brewer, a senior fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted on Twitter that the 60-percent target was “a significant… step” towards further shortening Iran’s breakout timeline.
Indeed, it would quickly allow Iran to reach the 90-percent threshold needed for military purposes, even if it has repeatedly insisted it does not seek an atomic bomb.
Can meaningful dialogue now proceed?
Russia’s ambassador to the UN in Vienna said late Tuesday that a resumption of talks had been postponed for one day, to Thursday.
After voicing “concerns” in January over Iran’s decision to enrich uranium up to 20 percent, the Europeans and Washington in February urged Tehran not to disengage further.
For Brewer, enriching to 60 percent “is… unlikely to have the intended effect of forcing the US to accept Iran’s demands.
“So, buckle up” for a bumpy diplomatic ride, he forecast.
On Monday, Marc Finaud, head of Arms Proliferation at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, said events at Natanz represented “not only sabotage of centrifuges,” but a “sabotage of diplomacy”.