TEHRAN: Iran began enriching uranium up to 60 per cent purity on Friday (Apr 16), its highest level ever, after an attack targeted its Natanz nuclear site, the country's parliament speaker said.
The comment by Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, quoted by state television, did not elaborate on the amount Iran planned to enrich. However, it is likely to raise tensions even as Iran negotiates with world powers in Vienna over a way to allow the United States back into the 2015 nuclear agreement and lift the crushing economic sanctions it faces.
The announcement also marks a significant escalation after the sabotage that damaged centrifuges, an attack this past weekend suspected of having been carried out by Israel.
While Israel has yet to claim it, the country is widely suspected of having carried out the still-unexplained sabotage at Natanz, Iran's main enrichment site.
“The will of the Iranian nation is a miracle-maker, and it will defuse any conspiracy,” state television quoted Qalibaf as saying. He said the enrichment began just after midnight on Friday.
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the country's civilian nuclear arm, later acknowledged the move to 60 per cent, according to state TV. Ali Akbar Salehi said more details would be forthcoming and declined to further elaborate.
It wasn't clear why the first announcement came from Qalibaf, a hardline former leader in the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard already named as a potential presidential candidate in Iran's upcoming June election.
While 60 per cent is higher than any level Iran previously enriched uranium, it is still lower than weapons-grade levels of 90 per cent.
Iran had been enriching up to 20 per cent - even that was a short technical step to weapons grade. The nuclear deal limited Iran’s enrichment to 3.67 per cent.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors Iran's nuclear program, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, it sent its inspectors to Natanz and confirmed that Iran was preparing to begin 60 per cent enrichment at an above-ground facility at the site.
The heightened enrichment could inspire a further response from Israel amid a long-running shadow war between the nations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed never to allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and his country has twice pre-emptively bombed Middle East nations to stop their atomic programs.
The weekend attack at Natanz was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding 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 centre, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.
Satellite images from Planet Labs obtained by the Associated Press show no apparent above-ground damage at the facility.