Iran enriches 20% with new centrifuges at fortified site

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran announced Sunday that it has begun enriching uranium by up to 20% using sophisticated centrifuges at its underground Fordo nuclear plant, state television reported, an escalation that comes amid a standoff with the West over their battered atomic agreement.

The fact that Tehran is enriching uranium to 20% purity – a technical step from 90% weapons-grade levels – with a new set of its most advanced centrifuges in a facility deep in a mountain is another blow to the already slim chances of reviving the agreement

Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that 20% enriched uranium was collected for the first time in advanced IR-6 centrifuges on Saturday. He said that Iran had informed the UN nuclear watchdog about the development two weeks ago.

Centrifuges are used to spin enriched uranium to higher levels of purity. Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers required Fordo to become a research and development facility and restricted centrifuges there to non-nuclear uses.

Iran had previously told the IAEA that it was preparing to enrich uranium through a new cascade of 166 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its fordo underground facility. But he had not revealed the level at which the waterfall would be enriching.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, told The Associated Press it had verified on Saturday that Iran was using a setting that allowed it to more quickly and easily switch between enrichment levels.

In a briefing to member states, Director General Rafael Grossi described a “modified subtitle” system, which he said allowed Iran to inject gas enriched to 5% purity into a cascade of 166 IR-6 centrifuges in order to produce enriched uranium up to 20% purity.

Iran did not comment on the latest IAEA finding.

The nuclear talks have been in a stagnant for months. The US special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, described the latest round of negotiations in Qatar as “more than a bit of a wasted occasion”.

The IAEA reported last month that Iran has 43 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60% purity, a short step from 90%. Non-proliferation experts warn that it is enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon if Iran decides to go ahead.

However, Iran would still need to design a bomb and delivery system for it, probably a month-long project.

Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, although UN experts and Western intelligence agencies say Iran had an organized military nuclear program until 2003.

Tehran’s growing nuclear work has raised alarm bells with rapidly diminishing transparency. Last month Iran shut down more than two dozen IAEA surveillance cameras from various nuclear-related sites around the country.

Former President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed crushing sanctions on Tehran, setting off a series of tense incidents across the Middle East. Iran responded by massively increasing its nuclear work, increasing its stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and advanced centrifuges banned by the deal.

Iran’s adversary Israel has long opposed the nuclear deal, saying it set back Iran’s nuclear progress and arguing that sanctions relief empowered Tehran’s militias across the region.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called on the UN to reimpose multilateral sanctions on Iran, an offer that met strong opposition when pushed through by the Trump administration.

“The response of the international community must be decisive: go back to the UN Security Council and activate the sanctions mechanism with full force,” Lapid, who is serving as interim leader, told his Cabinet. “Israel, for its part, maintains full freedom to act, diplomatically and operationally, in this fight against Iran’s nuclear program.”


Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.


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