Iran’s government has announced it has begun enriching uranium up to 20 per cent, far outside the 3.67-per-cent limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal.
The enrichment started “a few hours ago” at the Fordo underground nuclear facility south of the capital Tehran, government spokesman Ali Rabiei said.
According to Rabiei, the process is in line with a new nuclear law recently passed by parliament.
The new law allows annual production of 120 kilograms at the 20-per-cent level and it also allows the country’s atomic agency to produce 500 kilograms of less-enriched uranium a month.
The law has proved controversial within Iran, where it has been criticised as politically unwise or technically unrealistic.
It is opposed by both President Hassan Rouhani and the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI).
Rabiei said that despite those misgivings, the Iranian government is constitutionally bound to implement a law passed by parliament.
Iran claims its nuclear program is primarily for civilian power generation but world powers fear officials have ambitions to produce atomic weapons.
The 2015 agreement between Iran and leading world powers – also called JCPOA – required it to limit production to low-enriched uranium, good for only civilian purposes, in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
But after President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the deal, Iran said it no longer feels bound by the agreement.
Since then, it has incrementally violated the limitations set down several times.
Low-enriched uranium is used for nuclear power, whereas highly enriched uranium to the order of 90 per cent can be used to produce atomic weapons.
Rabiei said the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been informed of Monday’s development.
The UN nuclear watchdog confirmed on Monday that Iran has begun the process of enriching uranium to 20 per cent purity at its Fordo site dug into a mountain.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter that Iran had resumed 20-per-cent enrichment.
“Our remedial action conforms fully with (paragraph) 36 of JCPOA, after years of non-compliance by several other JCPOA participants,” Zarif wrote in a tweet.
“Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL,” Zarif added.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the first world leaders to respond to the announcement, reiterating that “Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons”.
“Iran’s decision to continue violating its commitments, to increase the level of enrichment and advance industrial capacity for enriching uranium underground can be explained in no other way than the further realisation of its intention to develop a military nuclear program,” Netanyahu said in a statement released by his office.
There are various aspects to the new nuclear law.
Perhaps the most politically sensitive part is Iran’s withdrawal from the Additional Protocol of the IAEA, which allows for unannounced inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites by UN inspectors.
The move could not just lead to serious differences between Iran, the IAEA and European powers still in support of the 2015 deal but also complicate any negotiations between Tehran officials and the new US administration of president-elect Joe Biden.