Iran Resumes 20 Percent Uranium Enrichment at Fordow Site, Breaching Nuclear Deal

The move is the latest in a string of Iranian violations of the nuclear accord ■ Netanyahu: Israel won't allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons

Judy Maltz
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A satellite shows Iran's Fordow nuclear site in November 2020
A satellite shows Iran's Fordow nuclear site in November 2020Credit: AP
Judy Maltz

Iran has resumed 20 percent uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow nuclear facility, a level of purity that is not allowed under Tehran's 2015 nuclear pact with six major powers, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog has confirmed.

"Iran today began feeding uranium already enriched up to 4.1 percent U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment up to 20 percent," the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement on a report that was sent to member states on Monday afternoon.

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The move was initially declared by Iran, and later confirmed by the IAEA.

"A few minutes ago, the process of producing 20 percent enriched uranium has started in Fordow enrichment complex," government spokesperson Ali Rabeie told the semi-official Mehr news agency earlier on Monday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed Iran for its decision to increase enrichment.

"Iran's decisions to continue violating its obligations by increasing the level of [uranium] enrichment and promote industrial capabilities for underground enrichment cannot be explained in any way apart from the implementation of its intentions to develop a military nuclear program."

"Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said.

The move is the latest of several recent Iranian breaches of the deal, which it started violating in 2019 in retaliation for Washington's withdrawal from the agreement and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

In Brussels, a European Union Commission spokesperson said that the move "would constitute a considerable departure from Iran's commitments."

"All participants are interested in keeping deal alive. The deal will be kept alive as long as all participants keep their commitments."

The Biden transition team declined comment on Iran's enrichment move. The White House National Security Council had no comment, and referred queries to the U.S. State Department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Sunday, Jake Sullivan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said that Tehran’s ballistic missile program “has to be on the table” if the U.S. re-enters the Iran nuclear deal, an issue that Iranian President Hassan Rohani said was non-negotiable as recently as last month.

Addressing the one-year anniversary of the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Sullivan told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon now than it was before and that the U.S. is no safer now than it was before Soleimani’s killing, highlighting continued Iranian provocation against American interests in the Middle East.

"President Biden has said that if Iran comes back into compliance with its terms under the nuclear deal so that its program is back in a box then we would come back in, but that would become the basis for this follow-on negotiation," Sullivan said, noting that talks around the ballistic missile program would be part of the negotiations after re-entry into the nuclear deal.

On Saturday, international inspectors said that Iran plans to enrich uranium up to 20 percent at its underground Fordow nuclear facility, pushing its program a technical step away from weapons-grade levels as it increases pressure on the West over its tattered atomic deal.

The International Atomic Energy Agency acknowledged Iran had informed its inspectors of the decision after news leaked overnight Friday.

The decision comes after the Iranian parliament passed a bill, later approved by a constitutional watchdog, aimed at hiking enrichment to pressure Europe into providing sanctions relief. It also serves as pressure ahead of the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he's willing to reenter the nuclear deal.

Until of now, Iran has been enriching uranium up to 4.5 percent, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67 percent. Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chose to pursue them. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.

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