image Photo: IAEA, Reuters

Iran threatens to enrich uranium to 60%

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that the Islamic Republic will enrich uranium up to 60% purity if needed and never submit to Western pressure over nuclear development.

“Iran’s uranium enrichment level will not be limited to 20%. We will increase it to whatever level the country needs … We may increase it to 60%,” Khamenei proclaimed on state television, in a defiant game of brinksmanship.

“Americans and the European parties to the deal have used unjust language against Iran … Iran will not yield to pressure. Our stance will not change,” he stressed.

In apparent reference to his arch-enemy Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran’s Supreme Leader went on to taunt, “That international Zionist clown has said they won’t allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons. First of all, if we had any such intention, even those more powerful than him wouldn’t be able to stop us.”

Iran has been openly breaching its 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with six world powers since the U.S. withdrew in 2018. The accord caps the fissile purity to which Tehran is permitted to refine uranium at 3.67% – well under the 20% rate achieved before the agreement to which it recently resumed.

The “break out time” needed to produce enough fissile material at the 90% rate necessary to produce nuclear bombs is estimated between 2-3 months to a year.

US State Department Spokesman Ned Price said Khamenei’s comments “sounds like a threat,” and declined to respond to what he described as “hypotheticals” and “posturing.” He then reiterated Washington’s willingness to engage in diplomacy over renegotiating the JCPOA.

The Biden administration announced last week it is ready to hold a dialogue with the Ayatollah regime about the return of both countries to the nuclear accord abandoned by former US President Donald Trump.

Tehran has yet to issue a response to a European Union proposal to hold an informal meeting between the JCPOA’s current members, which it said is under review.

The latest rhetoric from Khamenei is widely viewed as a tactic to further up the ante in a stand-off with the White House. Even though Iran is contending with rising domestic pressure to ease economic hardship worsened by sanctions re-imposed by Trump, the Ayatollahs have demanded Biden must first end the punitive campaign in order for the JCPOA to be reviVed while Washington insists Tehran must first return to full compliance.

Hardline Iranian parliamentarians yesterday protested Tehran’s compromise with the International Atomic Energy Agency to permit “necessary” monitoring of the country’s nuclear sites for up to 3 months. The angry lawmakers claimed the deal, announced by the United Nations watchdog on Sunday, broke an Iranian law passed last year to nullify the Additional Protocol to the JCPOA authorizing such snap inspections unless sanctions were fully removed. That law is set to go into effect at midnight tonight Iranian time (20:30 GMT).

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken yesterday reaffirmed Washington’s offer to lift most punitive economic measures on Iran in exchange for the bolstering and extension of the JCPOA. In a pre-recorded speech to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Blinken said, “The United States remains committed to ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. Diplomacy is the best path to achieve that goal.”

According to a State Department transcript of an interview on “Impact with Yalda Hakim” on BBC World News via teleconference yesterday, Secretary Blinken stated yet again that the US would make “no upfront concessions.”

In making the argument for a negotiated return to the JCPOA, the top American diplomat maintained that the “so-called maximum pressure on Iran” implemented by the Trump Administration “has not produced results.  In fact, the problem has gotten worse.  Iran is now much closer to being able to produce on short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. That so-called breakout time had been pushed past one year by the nuclear agreement.  It’s now down, based on published reports, to just a few months.  And meanwhile, Iran has been not standing down but acting up in the region with various destabilizing actions, attacks on our own forces in Iraq and elsewhere, on our partners.”

After saying that “President Biden believes strongly that strong, principled diplomacy is the best way to try to deal with these issues, to put the nuclear problem back in the box and to push back on Iran in other areas,” Blinken underscored that, “our leverage has now increased because we’re now, once again, on the same page with our European partners.  Because they very much disagreed with the United States pulling out of the nuclear agreement, they were expending most of their energy on trying to keep the agreement alive, not in exerting pressure on Iran for some of the other egregious actions that it takes in the region and beyond.  We’re now all in the same place and we’re united in purpose, and that’s a very powerful thing.”

Secretary Blinken also held a telephone conversation with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on Monday. The US State Department said the two diplomats discussed the strong bilateral bond and agreed to work together to meet the challenges ahead, including any anti-Israeli initiatives in the international arena.

“Great speaking with @Gabi_Ashkenazi today to discuss our partnership, regional challenges, and Israel’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” Blinken wrote on Twitter later, adding, “The United States remains unwavering in its commitment to Israel’s security.”

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who remains firmly opposed to a US return to the JCPOA, convened senior cabinet officials to discuss the matter. Israeli Alternate Premier and Defense Minister Benny Gantz also attended the meeting, along with Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, Mossad Head Yossi Cohen, National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, Israeli Ambassador to the US and Permanent Representative to the UN Gilad Erdan and other senior security officials.

The ministers agreed to create a new committee of intelligence and diplomatic officials to advance Israel’s perspectives with their American counterparts, including the sharing of Israeli intelligence on further Iranian nuclear violations.