image Photo: Reuters

Iran to enrich uranium at 60%

Iran has declared that it will start enriching uranium to 60% purity – a move bringing the fissile material closer to levels suitable for a bomb.

Political Deputy at Iran’s Foreign Ministry and chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi, who made the announcement, also said the Islamic Republic would activate 1,000 advanced centrifuge machines at its Natanz enrichment facility, which was hit by an explosion on Sunday that Tehran called an act of sabotage by its arch-foe Israel.

“Apparently it is the crime of the Zionists, and if the Zionists act against our nation, we will answer it,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani this morning in a televised cabinet meeting, clearly stating that “Our response to their malice is replacing the damaged centrifuges with more advanced ones and ramping up the enrichment to 60% at the Natanz facility.”

Iranian authorities have described the incident as an act of “nuclear terrorism”.

The semi-official Fars news agency cited Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) Spokesman  Behrouz Kamalvandi as saying that immediately after last night’s decision that “practical preparations for 60% enrichment” are already underway at Natanz.

While a fissile purity of 90% is necessary to produce a nuclear bomb, the gap is not considered difficult to bridge.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had been informed of Iran’s move at the key nuclear installation.

Israel, which has not issued a formal response, is widely suspected of involvement in the attack as part of an escalating shadow war between the two countries.

Iran’s latest violation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) comes just before tomorrow’s slated resumption of talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the deal, that had been fiercely opposed by Israel and abandoned 3 years ago by former United States President Donald Trump.

Last week, Iran and the global powers held what they described as “constructive” talks to salvage the accord, which unraveled as Tehran consistently breached its limits on uranium enrichment since being hit by re-imposed harsh US sanctions.

The JCPOA capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium hexafluoride for centrifuges at 3.67%. In a significant step towards weapons-grade, the Ayatollah regime raised enrichment to 20% purity in January 2020.

Jerusalem has long rejected Tehran’s assertion that it is not pursuing development of nuclear weapons, and views all nuclear activity in the Islamic Republic as an existential threat.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif branded the incident at the underground Natanz plant a “very bad gamble” by Israel, that he said would only boost his country’s leverage in the Vienna talks. He also pledged, “I assure you that in the near future more advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges will be placed in the Natanz facility.”

US President Joe Biden has previously insisted that Iran must resume full compliance with curbs on its enrichment activity mandated by the JCPOA before Washington can lift sanctions or rejoin the pact.

Meanwhile in related developments, there have been reports that an Israeli-owned commercial vessel was attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in Gulf waters yesterday.

Israeli Channel 12 quoted unnamed Israeli officials who accused Iran of firing a missile at the ship.

Two maritime security sources told Reuters that an Israeli ship was hit near the UAE’s Fujairah port resulting in an explosion but that there were no casualties.

Officials in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office and Israel’s Defense Ministry declined to comment on the incident. A spokesman for Israel’s Transportation Ministry said he was aware of the reports but could not confirm them. There has been no immediate confirmation from the UAE.

Lebanon-based Al Mayadeen television channel cited sources who identified the vessel as the Hyperion. According to Refinitiv ship tracking data, a Bahama-flagged vehicle carrier Hyperion Ray was headed to Fujairah port from Kuwait.

The Israeli MT Lori was reportedly hit by a missile in March while sailing on the Arabian Sea. Also last month, the Iranian Shahr e Kord container ship was  damaged in an attack in the Mediterranean, 2 weeks after an Israeli-owned ship the MV Helios Ray – owned by the same company as the Hyperion Ray according to a United Nations database – was hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman.