Iran to Resume Uranium Enrichment at Fordow Nuclear Plant, Rohani Says

President says Tehran to begin injecting uranium gas into over 1,000 centrifuges in latest step away from 2015 deal

Iran's Fordow nuclear enrichment site, near the city of Qom, 156 kilometers southwest of Tehran, 2009.
REUTERS/DigitalGlobe/Handout

Iran's president announced on Tuesday that Tehran will begin injecting uranium gas into 1,044 centrifuges, the latest step away from its nuclear deal with world powers since President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord over a year ago.

The development is significant as the centrifuges previously spun empty, without gas injection, under the landmark 2015 nuclear accord. It also increases pressure on European nations that remain in the accord, which at this point has all but collapsed.

>> Iran's latest nuke deal breaches poses tough dilemma on remaining signatories | Analysis

In his announcement, President Hassan Rohani did not say whether the centrifuges, which are at its nuclear facility in Fordow, would be used to produce enriched uranium.

Iran's President Hassan Rohani gives a press conference in Tehran, Iran, Oct. 14, 2019.
AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

The centrifuges would be injected with the uranium gas as of Wednesday, Rohani said.

His remarks, carried live on Iranian state television, came a day after Tehran's nuclear program chief said the country had doubled the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation.doyub

There was no immediate reaction from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog now monitoring Iran's compliance with the deal.

But Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Iran had informed the agency over "the start of injecting UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) into centrifuges at Fordow on Wednesday."

The deal bans nuclear material from Fordow and by injecting UF6 into centrifuges, the facility will become an active nuclear site rather than a research plant as permitted under the pact.

"The IAEA was requested to send its inspectors to monitor the process," Gharibabadi said, quoted by state television. The IAEA monitors Tehran's compliance with the deal.

The measure will further complicate the chances of saving the accord, which European powers have called on Iran to respect.

Rohani stressed the steps taken so far, including going beyond the deal's enrichment and stockpile limitations, could be reversed if Europe offers a way for it to avoid U.S. sanctions choking off its crude oil sales abroad.

The centrifuges at Fordow are IR-1s, Iran's first-generation centrifuge. The nuclear deal allowed those at Fordo to spin without uranium gas, while allowing over 5,000 at its Natanz facility to enrich uranium.

A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. An IR-6 centrifuge can produce enriched uranium 10 times faster than an IR-1, Iranian officials say.

Iranian scientists also are working on a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50-times faster than the IR-1, Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akhbar Salehi said Monday.

As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5 percent, in violation of the accord's limit of 3.67 percent. Enriched uranium at the 3.67 percent level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90 percent. At the 4.5 percent level, it is enough to help power Iran's Bushehr reactor, the country's only nuclear power plant. Prior to the atomic deal, Iran only reached up to 20 percent.

Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilograms (11 pounds), Salehi said. Iran now holds over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, Salehi said. The deal had limited Iran to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).

The collapse of the nuclear deal coincided with a tense summer of mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied the allegation, though it did seize oil tankers and shoot down a U.S. military surveillance drone.