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Iran makes defiant “60%” uranium move in wake of suspected attack by Israel

Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) sitting across the table from Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov who made an impromptu visit to Tehran on April 13.
Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) sitting across the table from Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov who made an impromptu visit to Tehran on April 13.

Iran on April 13 stepped up its defiance in the wake of the weekend cyber-attack on its main nuclear facility—widely thought to have been the work of Israeli agents—by stating that it was making preparations to begin enriching uranium to 60%.

France said that the Iranian move was a "serious" development and that the reaction to it would need coordination with the remaining parties to the 2015 nuclear deal and Washington, which Paris would organise.

The day also saw an apparent missile attack on an Israeli-owned ship, the Hyperion Ray, off the United Arab Emirates’ coast. Israel’s top-rated television news programme on Channel 12 TV quoted unnamed Israeli officials as blaming Iran for the incident, in which there were no casualties. Observers of the covert conflict between Iran and Israel are wary that tit-for-tat attacks on Iranian and Israeli shipping, which have been gradually escalating, could move to a more serious level amid worsening tensions between the regional arch-foes.

Iran is already breaching the nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, with uranium enrichment to 20% purity. Bringing that up to 60% would put Iran significantly closer to the 90% required for fissile material needed for a nuclear weapon.

Vienna talks to resume

The announcement of the uranium enrichment move came two days prior to the resumption of talks in Vienna aimed at finding a way to enable Iran and the US to restart compliance with the JCPOA that is designed to ensure Iran does not move beyond the civilian sphere in its nuclear development programme in return for a shield against major economic sanctions. Israel fiercely opposes the talks, saying that the accord is not fit for purpose when it comes to derailing Iran’s military nuclear ambitions, though Tehran claims it has never had any intention of producing a nuclear weapon. Agreeing with the Israeli line, former US president Donald Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA three years ago and hit the Iranians with sanctions unprecedented in their scope and severity.

Announcing the planned move to 60% enrichment, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi said Iran would activate 1,000 advanced centrifuge machines at Natanz, the nuclear plant hit by a cyber-attack induced explosion in an underground facility on April 11 that Tehran called an act of sabotage by Israel. However, an Iranian official told Reuters later that “60% enrichment will be in small quantity” only.

“From tonight, practical preparations for 60% enrichment will begin in Natanz; 60% uranium is used to make a variety of radiopharmaceuticals,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted Iranian nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi as saying.

In Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki called Iran’s announcement “provocative” and said the Biden administration was concerned, adding that it called into question Tehran’s seriousness on nuclear talks.

Ability “eliminated”

Earlier, Alireza Zakani, head of the Iranian parliament's Research Centre, speaking on state-run Ofoq TV channel, said thousands of machines used to refine nuclear material were destroyed or damaged in the Natanz attack. He said the incident had "eliminated" Iran's ability to carry out the process.

The “nuclear terrorism” took place in a facility up to 50m (165ft) underground, another official said.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement in the attack that cut electricity to the uranium enrichment production halls, but Israel public radio cited intelligence sources as saying it was a Mossad cyber-operation.

Iran has said it will replace the affected centrifuges with the more advanced ones but US intelligence officials have briefed media that the attack may have set back the country’s nuclear programme by around nine months.

Iran’s top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on April 13 that the attack on the Natanz plant in central Iran was a “very bad gamble” that would boost Tehran’s leverage in the talks to salvage the nuclear deal. In those talks, Iran—which is not speaking to the US directly, but is relaying its demands through European intermediaries—is demanding Washington lift more than a thousand sanctions before it returns to JCPOA compliance.

“I assure you that in the near future more advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges will be placed in the Natanz facility,” Zarif told a news conference alongside his visiting Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Tehran.

In his televised comments, Zakani said: "Is it normal that today they reach a pit of our electricity system and take actions so that several thousand centrifuges are damaged and destroyed in one instant?"

"Should not we be sensitive over the incident that happened, eliminating the main part of our enrichment capacities?"

Separately, the former head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation has disclosed that a blast and fire that occurred at the Natanz facility in July 2020 was caused by explosives hidden inside a table. Fereydun Abbasi-Davani told state TV that the perpetrators "amended the explosive [placed in the table] and sealed it, using, perhaps, resin or welding the steel".