By Michael R. Gordon in Washington and Sune Engel Rasmussen in Vienna
Iran will start enriching some of its stock of uranium to 60%
for the first time, one of Iran's leading nuclear negotiators said
Tuesday, after an attack on its main nuclear facility.
But the country's negotiators will continue to participate in
talks in Vienna on constraining its nuclear activities in return
for a reversal of American economic sanctions on Tehran. Former
U.S. officials said that Iran's announcement appeared to be
calculated to fortify Iran's negotiating hand and counter the
notion that its nuclear program had suffered a major setback.
The comments from Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister,
followed the apparent sabotage of Iran's Natanz nuclear facility
Sunday, which caused an electrical blackout that destroyed a number
of centrifuges. Israeli media reported that the attack was carried
out by the nation's Mossad intelligence agency, though Israeli
officials declined to comment. Iran has also blamed Israel. The
White House has said the U.S. had no involvement in the Natanz
"The Iranians believe their nuclear activity provides leverage
in the talks," said Gary Samore, director of the Crown Center for
Middle East Studies at Brandeis University and a
weapons-of-mass-destruction expert on former President Barack
Obama's National Security Council. "Since some portion of Natanz
appears to have been knocked out for some period, that weakens
their leverage, and they have compensated by announcing higher
Mr. Araghchi was in the Austrian capital to attend a second week
of negotiations over restoring the 2015 nuclear deal by bringing
Iran back into compliance and by removing sanctions that the U.S.
imposed after the Trump administration withdrew from the pact in
Engaged in the talks are all remaining participants in the pact
-- Iran, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain. The U.S. is
participating without meeting directly with Iranian officials.
Since the Trump administration's 2018 withdrawal, Iran has
abandoned some of its commitments under the deal and resumed some
nuclear activities that breach its limits. Iran maintains its
nuclear program is for peaceful energy applications. On Tuesday,
the U.S. said U.S. intelligence assessed Iran wasn't currently
undertaking "key nuclear-weapons-development activities" necessary
to produce a nuclear weapon.
In January, Iran raised its levels of uranium enrichment to 20%
purity for the first time since 2013, well beyond the limits of the
2015 deal, which is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of
Action, or JCPOA. By producing uranium enriched to 60%, Iran would
move closer than ever before to the 90% purity threshold required
for weapons-grade uranium.
Iran's ambassador to the United Nations atomic agency, Kazem
Gharibabadi, said late Tuesday that he expected the first 60%
material to be produced next week. The Iranians will use two
cascades of centrifuges at the above-ground pilot project at
Natanz, signaling that production of 60% material is likely to be
limited. One nuclear expert involved in the talks said he expected
Iran's output of the material at first to be "very low."
Reaching 60% enriched uranium would be Iran's most dramatic
breach of the 2015 accord yet -- and uncharted territory for
Iranian scientists and engineers. Iran says all its breaches of the
deal's limits so far are reversible if the U.S. lifts sanctions,
which have hit Iran's economy. However, Western officials worry
that in the process of advancing its nuclear program, Iran may gain
technical knowledge that can't be erased, even if its enrichment
levels are lowered and centrifuges stowed away.
"The big risk in gaining knowledge is not so much with the 60%
per se, but with Iran's expanded use of advanced centrifuges," said
Eric Brewer, a former National Security Council
counterproliferation official, now at the nonpartisan Center for
Strategic and International Studies research organization in
While all sides say they are intent on reviving the nuclear
deal, if the Vienna talks collapse or reach deadlock, Iran could
try in that time to push its nuclear program to a more
sophisticated level than it was in 2013, when it agreed to curb the
program under an interim deal before the 2015 agreement. That, in
turn, could spur Israel to undertake new operations to try to
thwart Iran's progress.
In November, Iran's top nuclear scientist was shot and killed in
an attack Iran blamed on Israel. Israel declined to comment. In
July, an explosion damaged a building at the Natanz site. Israel
has also targeted at least a dozen vessels bound for Syria and
mostly carrying Iranian oil.
Experts have said Iran's current stockpile stands at around
three tons of less-enriched material, enough for two nuclear
weapons once refined to higher purity.
The head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, said
more sophisticated centrifuges would soon replace the ones
destroyed in the attack on Natanz, and that electrical power
systems would be quickly restored in the coming days. Backup power
is already online. IAEA inspectors are expected to visit Natanz on
Wednesday, according to a senior diplomat.
"Every single centrifuge is being checked, and damaged
centrifuges will be replaced," Iranian state television reported
him as saying. "We will definitely move towards 60%
The IAEA reported on April 1 that Iran had already installed
close to 800 advanced centrifuges at Natanz, which can produce
enriched uranium at an estimated five times faster than the less
sophisticated centrifuges that make up the bulk of its
It could take several months to install the 1,000 additional
advanced machines that Iran says it will install, experts say.
--Aresu Eqbali in Tehran and Laurence Norman in Brussels
contributed to this article.
Write to Michael R. Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org and Sune
Engel Rasmussen at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 13, 2021 17:58 ET (21:58 GMT)
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