Iran has started enriching uranium to its highest level ever, days after an explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility that Tehran blamed on Israel.
Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said only a few grams an hour of uranium gas would be enriched up to 60% purity — triple the level it once did but at a rate far slower than what Tehran could produce.
“We are now getting nine grams [almost a third of an ounce] per hour,” Salehi of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said on state television.
The move is likely to raise tensions even as Iran negotiates in Vienna over a way to allow the US back into the agreement and lift the crushing economic sanctions it faces. However, its scope also provides Iran with a way to quickly de-escalate if it chose.
The announcement also marks a significant escalation after the attack that damaged centrifuges at Natanz, an attack this past weekend suspected of having been carried out by Israel. While Israel has yet to claim it, it comes amid a long-running shadow war between the two Mideast rivals.
Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Iran’s parliament speaker, announced the move in a Twitter post later acknowledged by Iranian state television.
“The young and God-believing Iranian scientists managed to achieve a 60% enriched uranium product,” Qalibaf said. “I congratulate the brave nation of Islamic Iran on this success. The Iranian nation’s willpower is miraculous and can defuse any conspiracy.”
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the country’s civilian nuclear arm, later acknowledged the move to 60%, according to state TV. Ali Akbar Salehi said the centrifuges now produce 9 grams an hour, but that would drop to 5 grams an hour in the coming days.
“Any enrichment level that we desire is in our reach at the moment and we can do it at any time we want,” Salehi said.
State TV later referred to the decision as a “show of power against terrorist rascality.”
Mahmoud Vaezi, the chief of staff for Iran’s president, similarly said it sent the message that Iran’s atomic program ”will not be stopped through the assassination of nuclear scientists and sabotage in nuclear facilities.”
While 60% is higher than any level Iran previously enriched uranium, it is still lower than weapons-grade levels of 90%.
Iran had been enriching up to 20% — even that was a short technical step to weapons grade. The deal limited Iran’s enrichment to 3.67%.
The heightened enrichment could inspire a further response from Israel amid a long-running shadow war between the nations.