April 16 (Reuters) – Iran has begun 60% uranium enrichment at its Natanz plant, its higher ever level, the country’s nuclear chief said on Friday, days after an explosion at the site that Tehran blamed on Israel.
Iran had in recent months already raised enrichment to 20% purity, a level where uranium is considered to be highly enriched and a significant step towards weapons-grade. Some 90% is needed for bomb-grade material.
A 2015 deal with world powers to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for the lifting of sanctions had capped the level of purity at 3.67%. Iran denies seeking a nuclear weapon.
“We are producing about 9 grams of 60% enriched uranium an hour,” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told state television.
“But we have to work on arrangements … to drop it to 5 grams per hour. But then we will simultaneously produce 20% (uranium),” Salehi said.
Earlier, parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf said Iranian scientists had successfully started enriching 60% uranium at 40 minutes past midnight.
“The will of the Iranian nation makes miracles that thwart any conspiracy,” Qalibaf said on Twitter.
In Vienna, a spokesman for the United Nations nuclear watchdog IAEA declined to comment on the Iranian statements about 60% enrichment.
Iran and global powers are meeting in Vienna to try to rescue the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Washington three years ago – an effort potentially complicated by Tehran’s decision to ramp up uranium enrichment.
The talks will carry on for several days before breaking so that Iranian and U.S. officials can return home for consultations, a European Union official said on Friday.
“We have this (Iranian) decision to go for 60% enrichment. Obviously this is not making the negotiation easier,” the EU official told reporters, calling what happened at Natanz “deliberate sabotage”.
Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s chief negotiator at the talks, said on Tuesday that Iran would activate 1,000 advanced centrifuge machines at Natanz.
Multiple Israeli media outlets have quoted unnamed intelligence sources as saying the country’s Mossad spy service carried out the sabotage operation at the Natanz complex. Israel – widely believed to be the only Middle Eastern country with a nuclear arsenal – has not formally commented on the incident. Israel will do “whatever it takes” to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said on Friday.
(firstname.lastname@example.org, additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, Francois Murphy in Vienna and Michele Kambas in Paphos, Cyprus; Editing by William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)