Iran has told international nuclear inspectors it plans to enrich uranium up to 20% at its underground Fordo nuclear facility – a technical step away from weapons-grade levels – as it increases pressure on the West over its tattered atomic deal.
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency acknowledged the step after news leaked concerning a letter it sent to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Russia’s representative to the IAEA similarly acknowledged Iran’s letter on Twitter, though the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The move comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US in the waning days of the administration of President Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal in 2018.
That set in motion an escalating series of incidents capped by a US drone strike killing a top Iranian general in Baghdad a year ago. The anniversary of that strike this Sunday has American officials now worried about possible retaliation by Iran.
Iran’s decision to begin enriching to 20% a decade ago nearly brought an Israeli strike targeting its nuclear facilities – tensions which only abated with the 2015 atomic deal. A resumption of 20% enrichment could see that brinksmanship return.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the US-educated head of the civilian Atomic Energy Organisation 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,” Mr 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.”
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 US president-elect Joe Biden, who has said he is willing to re-enter the nuclear deal.
The IAEA acknowledged Iran had informed its inspectors of the decision by a letter after news leaked overnight on Friday.
“Iran has informed the agency that in order to comply with a legal act recently passed by the country’s parliament, the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran intends to produce low-enriched uranium … up to 20% at the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant,” the agency said in a statement.
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”.
The parliamentary bill also called on Iran to expel those inspectors, though it appears Tehran has not yet taken this step.
Mr Salehi said Iran would need to switch out 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,” Mr Salehi added.
Since the deal’s collapse, Iran has resumed enrichment at Fordo, near the Shia holy city of Qom, some 55 miles south-west of Tehran.
Shielded by the mountains, Fordo is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications.
It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead US officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.
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.
Under Iran’s former hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran began 20% enrichment. Israel, which has its own undeclared nuclear weapons programme, feared Tehran is building a bomb.
After the discovery of Fordo, the US worked on so-called “bunker buster” bombs designed to strike such facilities.
As Israel threatened at one point to bomb Iranian nuclear sites like Fordo, US officials reportedly showed them a video of a bunker-buster bomb destroying a mock-up of Fordo in America’s south-western desert.
Israel, which under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to criticise Iran’s nuclear programme, offered no immediate comment.
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 maintains its nuclear programme is peaceful.
Iran separately has begun construction on a new site at Fordo, according to satellite photos obtained by The Associated Press in December.
Iran’s announcement coincides with the anniversary of the US drone striking Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last year. That attack later saw Iran retaliate by launching a ballistic missile strike, injuring dozens of US troops in Iraq. Tehran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that night, killing all 176 people on board.
As the anniversary approached, the US has sent B-52 bombers flying over the region and sent a nuclear-powered submarine into the Persian Gulf.
On Thursday, sailors discovered a limpet mine on a tanker in the Persian Gulf off Iraq near the Iranian border as it prepared to transfer fuel to another tanker owned by a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
No-one has claimed responsibility for the mining, though it comes after a series of similar attacks in 2019 that the US Navy blamed on Iran. Tehran denied any involvement.
In November, an Iranian scientist who founded the country’s military nuclear programme two decades earlier was killed in an attack Tehran blames on Israel.