Iran Has Capacity to Raise Uranium Enrichment Beyond 20 Percent, Official Says

Steps to develop more advanced centrifuges, lift limitations on research and development are 'reversible if the other side fulfills its promises' Iranian nuclear agency spokesman says

Spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Behrouz Kamalvandi attends a press briefing in Tehran, Iran, July 7, 2019.
Ebrahim Noroozi,AP

A senior Iranian nuclear official said on Saturday that the clock was ticking for other parties to salvage a 2015 nuclear deal and that it had the capacity to raise its uranium enrichment beyond 20 percent, although it had no plans to do so for the time being.

"We have started lifting limitations on our Research and Development imposed by the deal ... it will include development of more rapid and advanced centrifuges ... all these steps are reversible if the other side fulfills its promises," Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran's nuclear agency, said in a televised news conference.

"The European parties to the deal should know that there is not much time left, and if there is some action to be taken (to salvage the nuclear deal), it should be done quickly."

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Kamalvandi added that Iran has started injecting gas into advanced centrifuges. "Right now we don't need it, but developing new types of centrifuges is in our agenda."

The 2015 pact curbed Iran's disputed nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions, but has unravelled since the United States pulled out of it last year and acted to strangle Iran's oil trade to push it into wider security concessions.

Since May, Iran has begun to scale back its commitments to the pact in retaliation for U.S. President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign since he exited the deal and reimposed sanctions to force Tehran back into negotiations.

Iran says its measures are reversible if the European side find a way to protect its vital oil exports from Washington's sanctions.

The deal capped the number of centrifuge enrichment machines installed in Iran at roughly 6,000, down from around 19,000 before 2015. It allows Iran to refine uranium only with first-generation IR-1 centrifuges and to use small numbers of more advanced centrifuges solely for research, but without stockpiling enriched uranium, for a period of 10 years.

Iran said on Friday it had taken a step to further downgrade its commitments to the pact, in retaliation for increased pressure by the United States that exited the deal last year and reimposed sanctions on the country.

Cranking up advanced centrifuges

"Machines developed by our own research and development will help accumulate reserves. This was done yesterday and announced to the IAEA today," Kamalvandi said, referring to the U.N. nuclear watchdog which is monitoring compliance with the deal.

"This includes IR-6 machines which have now been fed (uranium) gas. A chain of 20 IR-4 centrifuges has also been started. The IR-6 has also started as a chain of 20 since yesterday," he said. "We will soon test our IR-8 centrifuge cascade by injecting gas into 3 IR-8 machines."

Advanced centrifuges can enrich at a much faster pace.

The accord also capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for centrifuges, at 3.67 percent, which is suitable for civilian power generation and far below the 90 threshold of nuclear weapons grade.

The 20 percent level represents a significant leap towards bomb material, though Iran has argued that it could be put to running its Bushehr nuclear power reactor.

"The U.N. nuclear watchdog has been informed about our new nuclear steps and it still has access to our nuclear sites," Kamalvandi said.

France, Germany and Britain have struggled to save the deal by setting up a barter trade mechanism with Iran but it has yet to get off the ground and Tehran on Wednesday set a 60-day deadline for the Europeans.

"We do not currently intend to make any changes to IAEA inspections and our transparency obligations are being met as before," Kamalvandi said.

"(But) when the other sides do not carry out their commitments, they should not expect Iran to fulfill its commitments" to limit nuclear capacity set by the deal.