Iran has successfully enriched uranium at 60 percent, its highest level ever, Iranian Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said on Friday.
The comment by Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, quoted by state television, did not elaborate on the amount Iran planned to enrich. However, it is likely to raise tensions even as Iran negotiates with world powers in Vienna over a way to allow the U.S. back into the agreement and lift the crushing economic sanctions it faces.
The announcement also marks a significant escalation after the sabotage that damaged centrifuges, an attack this past weekend suspected of having been carried out by Israel. While Israel has yet to claim it, the country is widely suspected of having carried out the still-unexplained sabotage at Natanz, Iran's main enrichment site.
“The will of the Iranian nation is a miracle-maker and it will defuse any conspiracy,” state television quoted Qalibaf as saying. He said the enrichment began just after midnight Friday.
Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, on a visit to Cyprus, mentioned Iran in a tweet after meeting his Cypriot counterpart on Friday.
“We discussed the bilateral ties between Israel and Cyprus as well as regional issues, most significantly the importance of stopping Iran’s aggressive activities in the Middle East, which undermine regional stability and pose a danger to the entire world,” he wrote.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, though the West and the IAEA say Tehran had an organized military nuclear program up until the end of 2003. An annual U.S. 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.”
- 'Remotely detonated device' blew up Iran's Natanz nuke site
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- Iran almost ready to enrich uranium to 60 percent, UN nuclear watchdog says
On Tuesday, an Iranian nuclear negotiator said Tehran would begin enriching uranium to 60 percent purity after an attack on its Natanz nuclear facility, higher than the program ever has before.
While 60 percent is higher than any level Iran previously enriched uranium, it is still lower than weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.
Iran had been enriching up to 20 percent — even that was a short technical step to weapons grade. The deal limited Iran’s enrichment to 3.67 percent, one of many limits that it breached more than a year ago in response to Washington's withdrawal from the deal under President Donald Trump and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran's nuclear program, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, it sent its inspectors to Natanz and confirmed Iran was preparing to begin 60 percent enrichment at an above-ground facility at the site.
Iran's President Hassan Rohani said on Wednesday that "60-percent enrichment is an answer to your evilness. ... We cut both of your hands, one with IR-6 centrifuges and another one with 60 percent."
IR-6s enrich uranium far faster than its IR-1 first-generation centrifuges.
Rohani made the comments Wednesday at a Cabinet meeting. He said: "You wanted to make our hands empty during the talks but our hands are full.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Israel was behind the attack, calling it a "very bad gamble" 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.