Updated 03 February 2021 Arab News February 02, 2021 16:33
JEDDAH: Iran has again increased enrichment of uranium at its Natanz underground nuclear plant, UN atomic watchdog inspectors reported on Tuesday.
And Tehran boasted that it now had two clusters of advanced centrifuges running at the site that would almost quadruple its ability to produce fissile material.
“Thanks to our diligent nuclear scientists, two cascades of 348 IR2m centrifuges with almost four times the capacity of IR1 are now running successfully in Natanz,” said Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “Installation of two cascades of IR6 centrifuges has also been started in Fordow. There’s more to come soon.”
The increased enrichment is the largest breach so far of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of economic sanctions. Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, since when Iran has gradually ramped up its violations of the accord’s terms.
Tehran has started enriching uranium to higher purity, returning to the 20 percent it achieved before the deal from a previous maximum of 4.5 percent. The deal sets a limit of 3.67 percent, far below the 90 percent required to build a weapons.
Under the agreement, Iran can refine uranium only at Natanz, with first-generation IR1 centrifuges with uranium hexafluoride (UF6) feedstock. Last year it began enriching there with a cluster of much more efficient IR2m machines and in December said it would install three more.
“Iran has completed the installation of one of these three cascades, containing 174 IR2m centrifuges, and on Jan. 30 it began feeding the cascade with UF6,” the IAEA said on Tuesday.
The agency later confirmed that enrichment had begun with the second cascade.
The increased uranium enrichment ramps up pressure on the new administration in Washington over the future of the JCPOA. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said the US would return to compliance with the deal if Iran did too, but the US also wants a “longer and stronger” agreement that addresses Iran’s ballistic missile program and other issues.
The Trump administration had “seriously damaged Iran’s nuclear project,” Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Tuesday. “In terms of enrichment, they are in a situation of breaking out in around half a year,” he said. “As for nuclear weaponry, the range is around one or two years.”