DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran began enriching uranium Friday to its highest-ever purity that edges Tehran close to weapons-grade levels, attempting to pressure negotiators in Vienna amid 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 the level it once did but at a quantity far lower than what the Islamic Republic could produce. Iran also is enriching at an above-ground facility at its Natanz nuclear site already visited by international inspectors, not deep within its underground halls hardened to withstand airstrikes.
The narrow scope of the new enrichment provides Iran with a way to quickly de-escalate if it choses, experts say, but time is narrowing. An Iranian presidential election looms on the horizon as Tehran already is threatening to limit international inspections. Israel, suspected over 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.
While 60% is higher than any level Iran previously enriched uranium, it is still lower than weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran had been enriching up to 20% — and even that was a short technical step to weapons grade. The deal limited Iran’s enrichment to 3.67%.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s nuclear program, did not respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, it sent its inspectors to Natanz and confirmed Iran was preparing to begin 60% enrichment at an above-ground facility at the site.
Israel, which has twice bombed Mideast countries to stop their nuclear programs, plans to hold a meeting of its top security officials Sunday over the Iranian announcement. Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi called Iran a threat while on a trip Friday to Cyprus.
“Israel is determined to defend itself against any attempt to harm its sovereignty or citizens, and will do whatever it takes to prevent this radical and anti-Semitic regime from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Ashkenazi said.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, though the West and the IAEA say Tehran had an organized military nuclear program up until the end of 2003. An annual U.S. intelligence report released Tuesday maintained the American assessment that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.”