TEHERAN • Iran has begun preparations to boost its uranium enrichment capacity, its nuclear chief said yesterday, piling pressure on European powers trying to save a nuclear accord with Teheran that is in peril after a US withdrawal.
Teheran was developing infrastructure for building advanced centrifuges at its Natanz facility, Mr Ali Akbar Salehi, director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, said in a news conference broadcast on state television. The nuclear agency said it had notified the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, yesterday that the process to increase capacity had begun.
Mr Salehi's comments yesterday appeared to be a warning to the remaining signatories of possible consequences if the deal were to collapse. European powers still back the deal but have concerns over Iran's ballistic missile programme.
France, Britain and Germany want to salvage the 2015 deal's core bargain of sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on Iran's atomic activities. Washington has reimposed sanctions against Teheran since quitting the deal last month, arguing that Iran posed a security threat.
Iran has set out conditions to stay in the nuclear deal, including steps to safeguard trade and guarantee Iranian oil sales. But it has also said it could resume its 20 per cent uranium enrichment, which is banned under the deal.
Mr Salehi said the latest move did not violate the nuclear deal but that it marked an increase in the pace of the nuclear programme.
"If we were progressing normally, it would have taken six or seven years, but this will now be ready in the coming weeks and months," he said.
Mr Salehi said Iran has also developed the capacity to produce electricity at Natanz, which lies about 300km south of Teheran.
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Monday he had ordered preparations for the country to have greater enrichment capacity if the nuclear deal falls apart.
The 2015 agreement allows Iran to continue 3.67 per cent uranium enrichment, far below the roughly 90 per cent threshold of weapons-grade. Before the deal was reached, Teheran enriched uranium to up to 20 per cent purity.
Mr Salehi said Iran could not accept a "flawed" nuclear deal, nor could it adhere to the deal's restrictions while facing new sanctions.
Iran insists its nuclear programme is for civilian uses only, but opponents in the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia accuse it of seeking to build an atomic bomb.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in France yesterday to try and persuade European countries to follow the US' lead in abandoning the deal, said he was not surprised by the Iranian announcement.
Mr Netanyahu said the Iranian plan was aimed at producing nuclear weapons to be used against Israel as he vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE