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Iranian Nuclear Official Says Country Can Enrich Uranium Up To 90%

By Ilham Karimli January 11, 2021

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) inspects the country’s nuclear facilities together with Ali Akbar Salehi (left), the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran in April 2019. / EPA

The spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) has said the country is able to enrich uranium by up to 90 percent.

"Our achievements are so great that we can easily enrich uranium in different percentages up to 40%, 60% and even 90 percent," Behrouz Kamalvandi, was quoted by Iran’s Radio Zamaneh news website as saying on January 7. It should be noted that enriched uranium can be used to make reactor fuel but also nuclear warheads, with 90 percent purity considered weapons-grade.

"According to the law adopted by the Islamic Consultative Assembly [Iran’s parliament], if enrichment above 20 percent is required in some areas, the AEOI can do that," he added.

On December 1, 2020, the Iranian lawmakers ratified the generalities of a bill to adopt strategic measures to remove sanctions against the country and defend the nation’s interests.

According to the bill, the AEOI is required to: increase its production of enriched uranium to at least 500 kg per month; start the installation of centrifuges, gas injection, enrichment, and storage of materials up to "proper purity levels" within three months, via at least 1000 IR-2m centrifuges in the underground part of Shahid Ahmadi Roshan facility in Natanz: transfer any enrichment, research and development operations of its IR-6 centrifuges to the nuclear site of Shahid Ali Mohammadi in Fordow.

The bill also envisages the beginning of enrichment operations via at least 164 centrifuges and expand it to 1000 by 20 March, and return the 40-megawatt Arak heavy water reactor to its "pre-JCPOA condition" by reviving the calandria (reactor core) of the reactor within four months from the date of the adoption of the law.

The spokesman went on to say that the organization is currently using IR1 centrifuge machines to produce 20% enriched uranium with 6 cascades involved in the process, adding that there is the capacity to use centrifuge machines IR4, IR2M and IR6.

The statement comes days after Iran officially announced that it had resumed enrichment of uranium at its underground site in Fordow to 20 percent, a level not seen since 2015. The 20-percent uranium enrichment process was launched on January 4 as part of Iran's Strategic Action Plan to Counter Sanctions which was approved by the parliament in December 2020.

The resumption of uranium enrichment is part of Iran’s moves to scale back its compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known as the Iran nuclear deal signed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in 2015. These moves have come in response to US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in May of 2018. While the United States continued to add more sanctions on Iran, Tehran continued to take steps away from the nuclear deal.

In November 2019, the U.N. atomic watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report that Iran has fired up advanced uranium-enriching centrifuges that it had installed underground at its Natanz site, violating its nuclear deal with major powers.

Under the nuclear deal, Iran would curb its nuclear program in exchange for the removal of nuclear-related sanctions. As a result, Iran shut down many of its centrifuges used to develop uranium, but it retained the right to enrich uranium to a level of 3.67 percent and sell it abroad. It also banned uranium enrichment at Fordo – a facility built deep inside a mountain to protect it from a military strike – until 2031.

According to the World Nuclear Association, there are two paths to a bomb: using either uranium or plutonium. The concentration of uranium 235 needs to be increased to about five percent, called “low-enriched uranium,” for nuclear reactor fuel, and to about 90 percent, known as “highly enriched uranium,” which can be used for nuclear bombs.

Head of the AEOI Ali Akbar Salehi said on January 5 that the country plans to install 1000 more centrifuge machines soon, adding that the country will enrich 8 to 9 kg of 20% uranium per month.

Iran has recently taken a final step in reducing its commitments, announcing it would no longer observe any operational limitations on its nuclear industry, whether concerning the capacity and level of uranium enrichment, the volume of stockpiled uranium or research and development. However, Tehran has clarified on numerous occasions that all the steps away from the nuclear deal are reversible, and if Biden reenters the JCPOA, Iran will reverse their nuclear steps.

The Iranian president and foreign minister have repeatedly stressed that the US must return to the commitments it has made before. In response to the US’ unilateral move, Tehran has so far rowed back on its nuclear commitments four times in compliance with Articles 26 and 36 of the JCPOA but stressed that its retaliatory measures will be reversible as soon as Europe finds practical ways to shield the mutual trade from the US sanctions.

Tehran has particularly been disappointed with the failure of the three European signatories to the JCPOA - the UK, France and Germany - to protect its business interests under the deal after the United States' withdrawal. On January 6, the three rebuked Iran and urged it to reverse course.

“This action, which has no credible civil justification and carries very significant proliferation-related risks, is in clear violation of Iran’s commitments,” said in a joint statement from the three countries, adding that “it also risks compromising the important opportunity for a return to diplomacy with the incoming US administration.”