Iran to increase uranium enrichment level to 20%: nuclear chief

January 2, 2021 - 16:52

TEHRAN – Iran plans to increase uranium enrichment level to 20% as soon as possible, the head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) said late on Friday amid simmering tensions with the United States.

In an interview with Iran’s Channel 5, Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran will soon start 20% uranium enrichment in line with a recent law passed by the Iranian Parliament requiring the AEOI to make preparations to substantially increase the country’s nuclear activities within few months if the Western countries that are party to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal fail to honor their obligations under the deal.

“We have sent a letter to the representative of the Islamic Republic to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to submit it to the Agency. This letter was submitted to the Agency on Friday, informing it that we want to start 20% enrichment in accordance with the parliament law. Because we must inform the Agency and then its inspectors should come to unseal certain things that have been sealed,” the head of the AEOI said, according to a Fars News report.

According to Salehi, in order for Iran to start enriching uranium to 20% purity, it needs to make some preparations such as changing the uranium gas cylinders. “And this must be done under the supervision of the Agency. We have announced that we will do it in near future and that you need to do the necessary measures,” Salehi noted.

“God willing, we will start enriching [uranium] up to 20% soon. The president should issue an order. Of course, the president has already issued a preliminary order according to which we sent a letter to the Agency and made the announcement. We are just like a soldier having his hand on the trigger, waiting for the commander to issue an order to open fire. We are ready to do this and God willing, we will do it as soon as possible,” he continued.

The nuclear chief implied that Iran may increase the enrichment level at the Fordow nuclear plant, noting that increasing enrichment level at Fordow would be done “very quickly”.

Salehi said the AEOI move to increase the enrichment level is going to be taken according to the Parliament’s nuclear ratification.

“We must implement what the Parliament passed because it is a law. The government has prepared procedures on how to implement the Parliament’s law.”

He was referring to a recent parliamentary law that requires the cabinet of Hassan Rouhani to substantially resume nuclear activities in case the Western, in particular the European, parties to the 2015 nuclear deal – officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – failed to keep up their end of the bargain.

The nuclear law, officially called “Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions and Protect Nation’s Rights,” introduces a step-by-step strategy for the government to increase nuclear activities in few months if the other side failed to implement certain commitments. The law is part of a broader strategy that aims to lift the United States sanctions on Iran and was put forward by the lawmakers in early November. It aims to force the United States into lifting sanctions on Iran by doubling down on nuclear activities.

The law obliges the government to considerably speed up nuclear activities such as increasing uranium enrichment level to 20% and employing more advanced centrifuges. It also requires the government to suspend the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) a few months after the ratification of it if the parties to the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers failed to uphold their obligations under the JCPOA.

Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has said this law will enhance Iran’s nuclear program while enabling the country to overcome the U.S. sanctions.

“This plan will strengthen the industry and the practical achievements of nuclear scientists and pave the way for Iran to overcome sanctions. This law, along with the reactions of other relevant agencies, in addition to reviving Iran's nuclear industry, creates deterrence against the enemy and security for the people,” the speaker said in November.

With Iran expressing readiness to produce 20% enriched uranium, nuclear law seems to have entered the implementation phase.

The UN nuclear watchdog confirmed in a statement that it was informed by Iran of the country’s plan to produce 20% enriched uranium.

“Iran has informed the Agency that in order to comply with a legal act recently passed by the country’s parliament, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran intends to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) up to 20 percent at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant,” the IAEA statement said.

The JCPOA has set a limit of 3.67% on Iran’s uranium enrichment. But following U.S. President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018, after a year Iran started to reduce its nuclear commitments, increasing its uranium enrichment level to 4.5%. Iran also accumulated more nuclear materials, including low enriched uranium, than what was permitted under the JCPOA.

Iran has said that all its nuclear measures were adopted with its rights that are stipulated within the JCPOA. It called on the European signatories to the JCPOA –France, Germany and the UK (E3)- to secure Iran’s interests by implementing their obligations under the deal. But the Europeans raised other non-nuclear issues such as Iran’s missile program and its regional influence, instead of living up to their commitments.

Faced with the Europeans’ non-compliance with the deal, the Iranian Parliament moved to turn up the heat on the E3 by adopting the nuclear law, which ultimately forced them to back down on their non-nuclear demands such as extending the JCPOA sunset clauses and holding a new round of negotiations over Iran’s defense capabilities and its regional influence.

Abolfazl Amouei, the spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, has said that the nuclear law forced the West to change course on Iran.

“We are currently witnessing signs of a change in the behavior of the Europeans but they are still far from our demands. Therefore, the Parliament will seriously pursue the implementation of the strategic law on lifting sanctions,” Amouei said in late December, shortly after a JCPOA ministerial meeting during which the E3 agreed to put aside their non-nuclear preconditions.

Amouei said that there have been indications that the Western parties to the JCPOA have put aside their preconditions and claims after the Iranian Parliament passed the nuclear law, which was designed, in itself, to push the Europeans into changing tack on Iran.

“From the foreign reactions we received after the adoption of the strategic law on the elimination of sanctions in the Parliament, we understand that this law has had its effect in the international arena and has forced the Western parties to reconsider their policies,” Amouei remarked.

The Guardian also reported that the European parties to the JCPOA have come to the conclusion that they should abandon their preconditions.

Following the JCPOA ministerial meeting, the British newspaper said that the E3 foreign ministers have agreed not to set fresh preconditions on a revival of the Iran nuclear deal, believing Tehran and Washington should be able to come back into full compliance with the agreement without at this stage needing to accept to extend or strengthen it.