Iran tells UN watchdog it plans to enrich uranium by up to 20%

No mention of when move, which comes after killing of country's top nuclear scientist, will take place

An Iranian flag flutters in front of the United Nations headquarters in Vienna.
An Iranian flag flutters in front of the United Nations headquarters in Vienna.PHOTO: REUTERS

TEHERAN/VIENNA • Iran has told the United Nations nuclear watchdog that it plans to enrich uranium to up to 20 per cent purity, a level it achieved before a 2015 accord, at its Fordow site buried inside a mountain.

The move was confirmed by the head of the country's Atomic Energy Organisation, Dr Ali Akbar Salehi, on Friday. It is the latest of several recent announcements by Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it plans to further breach the deal, which it started violating in 2019.

That was in retaliation for Washington's withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and its reimposition of sanctions on Teheran.

The measure was one of many mentioned in a law passed by Iran's Parliament last month in response to the killing of the country's top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on Nov 27, which Teheran has blamed on Israel.

It could complicate efforts by US President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the deal.

"Iran has informed the agency that in order to comply with a legal act recently passed by the country's Parliament, the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran intends to produce low-enriched uranium up to 20 per cent at the Fordow fuel enrichment plant," the IAEA said in a statement.

An IAEA report to member states earlier on Friday used similar wording in describing a letter by Iran to the agency dated Dec 31.

"Iran's letter to the agency... did not say when this enrichment activity would take place," the IAEA statement added.

Fordow was built inside a mountain, apparently to protect it from aerial bombardment, and the 2015 deal does not allow enrichment there.

Iran is already enriching at the site with first-generation IR-1 centrifuges.

Dr Salehi said President Hassan Rouhani still needs to issue a directive and an "action order" for its official implementation to begin.

"We are soldiers and our hands are on the trigger. Once the chief gives the order, we can act very quickly," Dr Salehi added, as cited by the semi-official Iranian Students' News Agency.

His comments come at a sensitive time as Iranians mark the one-year anniversary of the US assassination of General Qassem Soleimani on Jan 3 last year.

The killing pushed the long-term foes to the brink of war, capping a security crisis in the Persian Gulf that started when President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran has breached the agreement's 3.67 per cent limit on the purity to which it can enrich uranium, but it has gone up to only 4.5 per cent so far, well short of the 20 per cent it achieved before the deal and the 90 per cent that is weapons-grade.

The 2015 deal's main aim was to extend the time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to at least a year from roughly two to three months.

It also lifted international sanctions against Teheran.

US intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons programme that it halted in 2003.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2021, with the headline 'Iran tells UN watchdog it plans to enrich uranium by up to 20%'. Print Edition | Subscribe