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Iran ‘almost’ ready for 60% uranium enrichment: IAEA

VIENNA, Austria: Iran has “almost completed preparations” to launch 60% uranium enrichment, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Wednesday said Iran had said it will activate 1,024 more IR-1 centrifuges, its older first generation of the machines at the Natanz nuclear plant.

Iran told the agency “the necessary pipework was being finalised and … centrifuges would start soon thereafter” at Natanz, the IAEA said in a statement.

Iran on Tuesday announced it would increase uranium enrichment up to 60%, its highest level ever, in response to a reported attack that knocked out electricity at the site.

Iran has blamed Israel for the explosion at its key nuclear site, which came as Tehran was continuing talks with world powers in Vienna over restoring the 2015 nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

President Hassan Rouhani said the decision to increase uranium enrichment after the attack was “an answer to your evilness”, saying Israel hoped to derail the talks aimed at reviving Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal. Israeli authorities have not commented on the attack.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised never to allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon. While Iran’s move keeps enrichment below weapons-grade levels of 90%, it is a short step away. Iran insists that its nuclear programme is peaceful.

The decision to boost enrichment came as negotiators from the remaining signatories to the JCPOA – Russia, China, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Iran – prepared to resume negotiations on the United States rejoining the accord.

Washington unilaterally pulled out of the agreement in 2018 under former US President Donald Trump, but the administration of President Joe Biden has said it would rejoin if Iran returns to compliance with the deal.

Iran has said it would not return to compliance until the US lifts harsh sanctions imposed on it since the US withdrawal.

France, Germany and the United Kingdom, all parties to the nuclear deal, issued a joint statement on Wednesday expressing their “grave concern” over Iran’s decision to increase enrichment.

“This is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon,” the countries said. “Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level.”

Saudi Arabia, a regional rival to Iran said enriching at that level “could not be considered a programme intended for peaceful purposes.”

“The kingdom calls on Iran to avoid escalation and not to subject the security and stability of the region to more tension, and to engage seriously in the current negotiations,” Saudi Arabia said in a statement.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Iran’s announcement “provocative,” saying the step raised questions about the seriousness of Tehran over the nuclear talks in Vienna.

Meanwhile, Iran’s supreme leader dismissed initial offers at talks in Vienna as “not worth looking at.”

“The offers they provide are usually arrogant and humiliating (and) are not worth looking at,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an address.

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