The Morning Call (Sunday)
Iran plans 20% enrichment of uranium ‘as soon as possible’
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran said Saturday it plans to enrich uranium up to 20% at its underground Fordo nuclear facility “as soon as possible,” pushing its program a technical step away from weapons-grade levels as it increases pressure on the West over the tattered atomic deal.
The move comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. in the waning days of the administration of President Donald Trump, who unilaterally with drew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal in 2018.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the U.S.-educated head of the civilian Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, offered a military analogy to describe his agency’s readiness to take the next step.
“We are like soldiers and our fingers are on the triggers,” Salehi told Iranian state television. “The commander should command and we shoot. We are ready for this and will produce (20% enriched uranium) as soon as possible.”
The White House had no immediate comment and referred to a statement issued in December by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after Iran’s parliament passed a bill on increasing uranium enrichment. Pompeo condemned the law as “nothing more than the regime’s latest ploy to use its nuclear program to try to intimidate the international community.”
A spokesman for President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team declined to comment.
Iran’s decision comes after its parliament passed a bill, later approved by a constitutional watchdog, aimed at hiking enrichment to pressure Europe into providing sanctions relief. It also serves as pressure ahead of the inauguration of Biden, who has said he is willing to reenter the nuclear deal.
The International Atomic Energy Agency acknowledged Iran had informed its inspectors of the decision by a letter after news leaked overnight Friday.
The IAEA added Iran did not say when it planned to boost enrichment, though the agency “has inspectors present in Iran on a 24/7 basis and they have regular access to Fordo.”
Salehi said Iran would need to switch natural uranium in centrifuges at Fordo for material already enriched to 4% to begin the process of going to 20%.
“It should be done under IAEA supervision,” Salehi added.
Since the deal’s collapse, Iran has resumed enrichment at For do, near the Shiite holy city of Qom,55
miles southwest of Tehran.
The 2015 deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. The accord also called for Fordo to be turned into a research and development facility.
As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chose to pursue them. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
Iran’s announcement coincides with the anniversary of the U.S. drone striking Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last year. That attack later saw Iran retaliate by launching a ballistic missile strike that injured dozens of U.S. troops in Iraq.