Iran starts enriching uranium to 60%, its highest level ever

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This satellite photo provided from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran's Natanz nuclear facility on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Iran began enriching uranium Friday, April 16, 2021, to its highest level ever at Natanz, edging closer to weapons-grade levels to pressure talks in Vienna aimed at restoring its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on the site. (Planet Labs via AP)

TEHRAN – Iran began enriching uranium Friday to its highest-ever purity, edging close to weapons-grade levels, as it attempts to pressure negotiators in Vienna during talks on restoring its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on its main enrichment site.

A top official said only a few grams an hour of uranium gas would be enriched up to 60% purity — triple its previous level but at a quantity far lower than what the Islamic Republic had been able to produce. Iran also is enriching at an above-ground facility at its Natanz nuclear site already visited by international inspectors, not deep within underground halls hardened to withstand airstrikes.

The narrow scope of the new enrichment provides Iran with a way to quickly de-escalate if it chooses, experts say, but time is narrowing. An Iranian presidential election looms on the horizon as Tehran already threatens to limit international inspections. Israel, suspected of carrying out Sunday's sabotage at Natanz, also could act again amid a long-running shadow war between the two Middle East rivals.

Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Iran’s parliament speaker, announced the higher enrichment on Twitter.

“The young and God-believing Iranian scientists managed to achieve a 60% enriched uranium product,” Qalibaf said. “I congratulate the brave nation of Islamic Iran on this success. The Iranian nation’s willpower is miraculous and can defuse any conspiracy.”

The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the country’s civilian nuclear arm, later acknowledged the move to 60%. Ali Akbar Salehi told Iranian state television the centrifuges now produce 9 grams an hour, but that would drop to 5 grams an hour in the coming days.

“Any enrichment level that we desire is in our reach at the moment and we can do it at any time we want,” Salehi said.

It wasn’t clear why the first announcement came from Qalibaf, a hard-line former leader in the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard already named as a potential presidential candidate in Iran’s upcoming June election.