Iran to increase uranium enrichment to 5%, in fresh violation of nuclear deal 

Source: Iran to increase uranium enrichment to 5%, in fresh violation of nuclear deal | The Times of Israel

Head of Tehran’s atomic energy agency says it will stay below 20% threshold; announcement comes as Rouhani says will restart centrifuges Wednesday at underground Fordo plant

Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi speaks in an interview with The Associated Press at the headquarters of Iran’s atomic energy agency, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran on Tuesday evening said it would begin enriching uranium up to five percent, the latest in a series of steps moving away from the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.

The decision came just hours after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also said the country would again begin enriching uranium at the heavily fortified underground Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant in Iran’s Qom Province.

As a key provision of the 2015 nuclear accord, Iran had agreed to halt production of nuclear materials at the facility, which was originally built and operated in secret, until its existence was exposed by the United States, Israel and other Western countries.

On Tuesday night, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran dropped a further bombshell, telling local media that the Islamic Republic would also be stepping up the level of enrichment to 5%, in a further violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which allows enrichment to 3.67%.

The decisions to restart operations at Fordo and increase uranium enrichment levels were the latest moves in an ongoing game of brinkmanship between the US and Iran, which began last year when the White House pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal. Since then, Washington has steadily imposed more and more sanctions against the Islamic Republic, which has retaliated with both violations of the JCPOA and increasingly aggressive actions in the Persian Gulf.

In this photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, spokesman of the organization Behrouz Kamalvandi speaks in a news briefing as advanced centrifuges are displayed in front of him, in Tehran, Iran, September 7, 2019 (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday night reiterated Israel’s intense opposition to Iran’s nuclear program.

“Given Iran’s efforts to expand its nuclear weapons program, expand its enrichment of uranium for making atomic bombs, I repeat here once again: We will never let Iran develop nuclear weapons. This is not only for our security and our future; it’s for the future of the Middle East and the world,” Netanyahu said in a speech Tuesday night.

On Monday, the White House announced new sanctions against members of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s inner circle as part of its so-called maximum pressure campaign against Tehran.

Rouhani said Iranian nuclear scientists would start injecting uranium gas into Fordo’s 1,044 centrifuges beginning Wednesday.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in New York on September 26, 2019. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

Under the 2015 accord, Iran was limited to enriching uranium up to 3.67%, which is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. This summer, it began surpassing this level, in violation of the agreement, up to 4.5%.

Head of Iran’s nuclear agency Ali Akbar Salehi said the uranium enrichment increase to 5% would be carried out in front of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, according to Iran’s Mehr news.

“Salehi said that it had been decided that there will not be [20%] uranium enrichment at Fordow for the time being,” the Iranian outlet reported.

The 20% level is seen as a significant threshold for uranium enrichment and surpassing it could trigger more severe sanctions against Iran from European nations, which are currently fighting to save the ailing JCPOA.

Earlier on Tuesday, the European Union and Russia voiced concerns over Iran’s announcement that it would resume uranium enrichment at the underground Fordo plant.

“We are concerned by President Rouhani’s announcement today to further reduce Iran’s commitments under the JCPOA,” EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Moscow was also “monitoring the development of the situation with concern” and supported “the preservation of this deal.”

At the same time, Peskov said Russia understood Tehran’s concerns over the “unprecedented and illegal sanctions” against the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov in Moscow, Russia, April 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Washington’s abandonment of the 2015 deal in May last year, followed by its reimposition of crippling sanctions, prompted Tehran to begin a phased suspension of its own commitments this year.

France called on Tehran to reverse its decision to resume enrichment, saying it “goes against the Vienna agreement, which strictly limits activities in this area.”

French foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said Paris remained committed to the accord and urged Iran to “fully adhere to its obligations and to cooperate fully with the IAEA,” according to Reuters.

Tuesday’s dramatic announcements came a day after Salehi said the country had doubled the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation.

There was no immediate reaction from the IAEA, which monitors Iran’s compliance with the deal

The centrifuges at Fordo are IR-1s, Iran’s first-generation centrifuges. The nuclear deal allowed those at Fordo to spin without uranium gas, while letting up to 5,060 at its Natanz facility to enrich uranium.

In this June 6, 2018 frame grab from the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, three versions of domestically-built centrifuges are shown in a live TV program from Natanz, an Iranian uranium enrichment plant, in Iran. (IRIB via AP)

A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas, also known as UF-6. 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, Salehi said Monday.

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).

Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.


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