DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran’s president on Wednesday called Tehran’s decision to enrich uranium up to 60% after saboteurs attacked a nuclear site “a response to your evil” linking the incident to ongoing talks in Vienna about its split nuclear deal with world powers.
Israel, which has not commented on the attack, is suspected of having carried out this weekend’s attack on the Natanz nuclear plant, part of an escalating shadow war between the two countries.
Escalation in enrichment could lead to further retaliation, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised never to allow Tehran to acquire a nuclear weapon. His country has twice preemptively bombed Mideast nations to stop their nuclear programs.
In a speech to his cabinet, a passionate President Hassan Rouhani said that damaged first-generation IR-1
“You wanted to empty our hands during the conversations, but our hands are full,” Rouhani said.
He added: “60% enrichment is a response to your evil. … We cut off both your hands, one with IR-6 centrifuges and another with 60%. ”
Iran announced on Tuesday that it would enrich uranium to its highest level ever in response to the weekend attack on Natanz. It also includes the addition of an additional 1,000 “more advanced” centrifuges there as well.
Officials initially said the enrichment would begin Wednesday. However, an early Wednesday morning tweet from Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazem Gharibadadi, suggested it might come later. He wrote that the enrichment was only handled by two cascades of IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges in Natanz. A cascade is a group of centrifuges that work together to enrich uranium faster.
“Change of process has just started and we expect to accumulate the product next week,” Gharibadadi wrote.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, although the West and the IAEA say Tehran had an organized military nuclear program until the end of 2003. The nuclear deal, however, prevented it from having enough of a uranium stockpile to be able to pursue a nuclear weapon.
An annual U.S. intelligence report released Tuesday upheld the U.S. assessment that “Iran is not currently conducting the key nuclear development activities that we believe would be necessary to produce a nuclear unit.”
The negotiations in Vienna aim to revive America’s role in the agreement, which former President Donald Trump abandoned, and to lift the sanctions he imposed. Rouhani insisted on Wednesday that Iran is still seeking a negotiated solution in Vienna over its program.
“The United States should return to the same conditions as in 2015 when we signed the nuclear deal,” Rouhani said.
Iran had previously said it could use uranium enriched up to 60% for nuclear-powered ships. However, the Islamic Republic currently has no such ships in its fleet. The IAEA has confirmed that Iran informed it of its plans to enrich up to 60%.
Iran had enriched up to 20% – and even that was a short technical step to arms quality levels of 90%.
The weekend attack on Natanz was originally described only as a blackout in the power grid that fed above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls – but later Iranian officials began calling it an attack.
Alireza Zakani, the hardline head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state television interview. However, no other official has offered this figure and no pictures of the aftermath have been released.
Associated Press author Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.