Iran Almost Ready to Enrich Uranium to 60 Percent, UN Nuclear Watchdog Says

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The Natanz uranium enrichment facility south of Tehran.
The Natanz uranium enrichment facility south of Tehran.Credit: Maxar Technologies / Reuters

Inspectors from the UN nuclear watchdog visited Iran's uranium enrichment site at Natanz on Wednesday, the agency said, without commenting on the extent of the damage caused by what Iran says was an act of sabotage.

"IAEA inspectors are continuing their verification and monitoring activities in Iran, and today have been at the Natanz enrichment site," the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement.

"The IAEA will continue to report on relevant developments regarding Iran's nuclear programme to the IAEA Board of Governors," it added, referring to its 35-nation decision-making body.

Iran has said it will enrich uranium to 60 percent - a big step closer to the 90 percent that is weapons-grade from the 20 percent maximum it has reached so far - in response to what it says was an act of sabotage by Israel against the underground plant.

"The Agency today verified that Iran had almost completed preparations to start producing UF6 enriched up to 60 percent U-235 at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP)," the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement, referring to uranium hexafluoride, the form in which uranium is fed into centrifuges for enrichment.

Iran's nuclear deal with major powers only lets Tehran enrich uranium up to 3.67 percent purity, 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 deal also says Iran can only produce enriched uranium with up to 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at its underground Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz. While it has broken that rule by adding more advanced centrifuges to the FEP, until now it has stuck to the limit on the number of IR-1 machines there.

"In a report issued to Member States today ... Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Iran had informed the Agency ... that the country intends to install six additional cascades of IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) comprising a total of 1,024 centrifuges," the IAEA said.

That report, one of two issued on Wednesday evening and obtained by Reuters, added: "Iran intends to use 6,084 IR-1 centrifuges installed in 36 cascades (in total at the FEP)."

The United States and Iran will reconvene indirect talks aimed at reviving the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal on Thursday in Vienna, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

The attack on Iran's key Natanz nuclear site on Sunday was caused by an explosive device that was smuggled into the plant and detonated remotely, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

Citing an unnamed intelligence official, the report said that the explosion, which has been attributed by foreign media 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, and suffered injuries.

Later that day, Iran's Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the attack on Natanz which Iran blames on Israel was 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.

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