Iran said on Wednesday that its decision to enrich uranium up to 60% was its “response” to Israel’s “nuclear terrorism” after Sunday’s explosion at its Natanz enrichment plant.
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Tehran announced on Tuesday evening that it would raise the maximum threshold for its enrichment activities for uranium in isotope 235 from 20% to 60%, which would bring the Islamic Republic closer to the 90% needed for military use.
While negotiations are taking place in Vienna to save the Iranian nuclear deal concluded in 2015 in the Austrian capital, President Hassan Rouhani reaffirmed on Wednesday that his country’s atomic ambitions were exclusively “peaceful”.
Germany, France and the United Kingdom – European states party to the Vienna Agreement – have nonetheless qualified Tehran’s announcement as “serious development (…) contrary to the spirit constructive ‘discussions.
To which Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seemed to respond that the only way out of the “dangerous spiral” triggered by the explosion in Natanz was to put an end to the “economic terrorism” of the former president. American Donald Trump.
But, for that, there is only “little time” to his successor Joe Biden, warned Mr. Zarif on Twitter.
Mr. Trump pulled the United States out of the Vienna Accord in 2018, at the same time reactivating the American sanctions against Iran that this pact had helped lift.
According to Tehran, the production of uranium enriched to 60% should begin “next week” (ie from Saturday in Iran) at the nuclear complex of Natanz.
Iranian authorities, who first reported an “accident” that caused a “power failure”, provided few details of the damage, but an as yet unknown number of centrifuges (used to enrich the uranium gas) appear to have been damaged.
Cut off “hands”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement sent to AFP that its inspectors had “visited (Wednesday) the Natanz enrichment site”, without further clarification.
Tehran quickly accused Israel, the Islamic Republic’s sworn enemy, of being behind Sunday’s explosion.
According to the New York Times, the Israelis managed to smuggle a bomb inside the factory.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assures us that the Islamic Republic (whose Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei calls Israel a “malignant cancer tumor” to be “eradicated”) poses an existential threat to his country.
He accuses Iran of seeking to acquire the atomic bomb in secret, which Tehran has always denied, and that the Vienna agreement endangers Israel, the only country in the Middle East to possess the atomic bomb.
The decision to enrich to 60% is “the answer to your malice,” Rouhani told the Israelis on Wednesday, “what you have done is called nuclear terrorism, what we are doing is legal.”
“For each crime, we will cut off your hands,” he warned, as the escalation between the Islamic Republic and Israel worries the international community.
Since early March, several attacks on Iranian ships have been attributed to Israel while several Israeli boats appear to have been targeted by Iranian attacks.
An Israeli channel reported on Tuesday that an Israeli boat had been the target of an attack near the Emirati coast, off Iran.
” Provocation ”
Berlin, London and Paris warned Wednesday against any “escalation by any actor whatsoever.”
Iran’s big rival in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has said “to follow with concern” the situation and called on Tehran to “avoid escalation”.
According to Iran, the 60% enriched uranium must be used to make more and better “radiopharmaceuticals”.
Tehran notably mentioned the production of molybdenum for nuclear medicine. Isotope of this metal, molybdenum-99, manufactured using low or highly enriched uranium 235, makes it possible to obtain technetium-99m, a product widely used in medical imaging.
In response to the return of American sanctions initiated by Mr. Trump, Iran has since 2019 freed itself from most of its commitments made in Vienna in 2015.
Enrichment to 60% would mark an unprecedented step in this process.
It is “a provocation” but it is “not enough” to develop an atomic weapon, said Robert Kelley, a former director of inspections at the IAEA.
Henry Rome, Iran specialist at the American consultancy firm Eurasia Group, agrees. For him, Tehran seeks to obtain “an advantage in the negotiation, not the bomb”.
In Tehran, the population reacts differently. “All of this will ‘certainly exacerbate the tensions,’ said Sara, a 40-year-old student, while Alex, a retired soldier, is convinced that Washington and Tehran ‘are discussing in secret and that these (negotiations) will be successful.’