Iran Begins 60 Percent Uranium Enrichment After Natanz Attack, Top Negotiator Says

Iran informed UN watchdog of its plans to enrich uranium, report says ■ Blast at Iran's main nuclear site was caused by a remotely detonated device, New York Times reports ■ Former PM Olmert: Device planted there in advance, could be 10 or 15 years ago ■ Zarif: Israel made a 'very bad gamble'

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi while visiting an exhibition of Iran's new nuclear achievements in Iran, earlier this week.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi while visiting an exhibition of Iran's new nuclear achievements in Iran, earlier this week. Credit: ,AP

An Iranian nuclear negotiator said Tehran will begin enriching uranium to 60 percent purity after an attack on its Natanz nuclear facility, higher than the program ever has before.

Abbas Araghchi made the comment Tuesday in Vienna, a day after Tehran accused arch-foe Israel of sabotaging a key nuclear site.

Araqchi was quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency. Iran had been enriching up to 20 percent. That is a short technical step to weapons-grade levels.

His comments was made shortly before the resumption of talks in Vienna aimed at reviving Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, an accord Israel fiercely opposed, after former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned it three years ago.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, in 2019.Credit: ,AP

The remarks come after a New York Times report said the attack on the Natanz nuclear site Sunday was caused by an explosive device that was smuggled into the plant and detonated remotely.

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Iran has informed the UN nuclear watchdog that it plans to enrich uranium to up to 60% percent purity at its above-ground pilot plant at Natanz, a report by the watchdog on Tuesday obtained by Reuters said.

"Iran informed the Agency that it intends to start producing UF6 enriched up to 60% U-235 at PFEP," the International Atomic Energy Agency report to member states said, referring to uranium hexafluoride, the form in which uranium is fed into centrifuges for enrichment, and the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz.

Citing an unnamed intelligence official, the report said that the explosion, which has been attributed to Israel, damaged Natanz's primary and backup electrical systems.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesperson for Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said that the attack blew a hole so big that he managed to fall into it, suffering injuries.

A number of new generation Iranian centrifuges are seen on display during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, Iran, earlier this week. Credit: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY OFFICE/ REU

The report also quoted Fereydoun Abbasi, the head of the Iranian Parliament's energy committee, who told state television Monday that "The enemy's plot was very beautiful" from a scientific standpoint.

"They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged."

Also on Tuesday, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Ynet news website that "what happened two days ago in Natanz wasn't caused by someone who broke in there in the middle of the night. The explosives were planted there in advance, maybe 10 or 15 years ago."

He added, "I can think of operations that were carried out in the past to plant devices."

Later that day, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the attack on Natanz was a "very bad gamble" by Israel that would strengthen Tehran's hand in talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with major powers.

"Israel played a very bad gamble if it thought that the attack will weaken Iran's hand in the nuclear talks," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart in Tehran.

"On the contrary, it will strengthen our position."

Electricity was restored at the plant and uranium enrichment has not ceased, Ali Akbar Salehi, who leads the Atomic Energy Organization said. "A large portion of the enemy's sabotage can be restored, and this train cannot be stopped," he said to Iranian media Monday. But the plant is still not running close to full capacity.

The Natanz facility, which is located in the desert in the central province of Isfahan, is the centerpiece of Iran's uranium enrichment program and monitored by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog. The attack, which Kamalvandi said had no casualties, was reported a day after Tehran launched new, advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges there.

The United States said Monday that it was not involved in the attack, which Iran blamed on Israel. "The U.S. was not involved in any manner," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing. "We have nothing to add on speculations about the causes or impact."

Some U.S. officials did express concern that the Natanz explosion will cause the Iranians to increase their clandestine nuclear activities.

Last week, Iran and the global powers held what they described as "constructive" talks to salvage the deal, which has unraveled as Iran has breached its limits on sensitive uranium enrichment since Trump reimposed harsh sanctions on Tehran.

The deal had capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for centrifuges, at 3.67 percent, far below the 90 percent of weapons grade.

Iran in recent months has raised enrichment to 20 percent purity, a level where uranium is considered to be highly enriched and a big step towards enriching to weapons-grade.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said Tehran must resume full compliance with restrictions on its nuclear activity under the deal before Washington can rejoin the pact.

Israel and Iran have been engaged in a long-running covert war. Tehran vowed revenge for what it described as an act of "nuclear terrorism" that caused an electricity outage in one of the production halls at the uranium enrichment plant.

In a letter to the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif argued: "Deliberate targeting of a safeguarded nuclear facility – with high risk of indiscriminate release of radioactive material – is nuclear terrorism and a war crime."

Israel fiercely opposes Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, an accord that Iran and the new administration of President Joe Biden are engaged in trying to revive after then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned it three years ago.

Israel, whose existence Iran does not recognize, has not formally commented on the incident.

Iran and the global powers described as "constructive" talks last week in Vienna to salvage the nuclear deal, which has unraveled as Iran has breached its limits on sensitive uranium enrichment since Trump reimposed harsh sanctions on Tehran.

A U.S. official told the Times that Washington has no reason to believe that Iran will change its approach to the Vienna talks, due, to resume Wednesday, because of the Natanz explosion, but that it is too soon to tell.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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