Iran Will Fire Up Uranium Gas Centrifuges

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran will start injecting uranium gas into more than 1,000 centrifuges at a fortified nuclear facility inside a mountain, the country’s president said Tuesday in Tehran’s latest step away from its atomic accord with world powers since President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal over a year ago.

President Hassan Rouhani’s announcement means that Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility, publicly revealed 10 years ago, again will become an active atomic site rather than a research facility as envisioned by the landmark 2015 accord.

The U.S. State Department days ago announced it would renew a waiver allowing Russia’s state-run Rosatom nuclear company to continue its conversion work at the site.

The announcement is a significant development as Fordo’s 1,044 centrifuges previously spun empty under the deal. It increases pressure on European nations that remain in the accord to offer Iran a way to sell its crude oil abroad.

Rouhani threatened in early January to pull Iran out of the deal, which could mean curtailing international surveillance of its program or pushing enrichment close to weapons-grade levels.

“We are aware of their sensitiveness toward the Fordo facility and those centrifuges,” Rouhani said in a live televised address. “At the same time, we cannot tolerate unilateral fulfillment of our commitments and no commitment from their side”

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog monitoring Iran’s compliance with the deal, declined to comment on Iran’s announcement. The European Union on Monday called on Iran to return to the deal, while the White House sanctioned members of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s inner circle as part of its maximalist campaign against Tehran.

Fordo sits some 15 miles northeast of Qom, a Shiite holy city and the site of a former ammunition dump. Shielded by the Alborz Mountains, the facility 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.

Iran acknowledged Fordo’s existence in 2009 amid a pressure campaign by Western powers over Tehran’s nuclear program. The West feared Iran could use its program to build a nuclear weapon; Iran insists the program is for peaceful purposes.

The centrifuges at Fordo are IR-1s, Iran’s first-generation centrifuge. The nuclear deal allowed those at Fordo to spin without uranium gas, while allowing up to 5,060 IR-1s at its Natanz facility to enrich uranium.

Rouhani said Tuesday that the centrifuges at Fordo would be injected with gas on Wednesday. He did not say did not say whether the centrifuges would produce enriched uranium.

However, Rouhani said that the steps taken so far, including going beyond the deal’s enrichment and stockpile limitations, could be reversed if Europe offers a way for it to avoid U.S. sanctions choking off its crude oil sales abroad.

“We should be able to sell our oil,” Rouhani said. “We should be able to bring our money” into the country.

The 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Iran limit its enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, called for Fordo to become “a nuclear, physics and technology center.” Rosatom did not immediately respond to a request for comment about its work there.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the joint Russian-Iranian project at Fordo would not be affected by Tehran’s latest move.

“We intend to continue to implement it,” Ryabkov told Russian news agencies.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Moscow wants the nuclear deal to survive, though it understood Iran’s anger over the “unprecedented and illegitimate sanctions against” it.

Rouhani’s announcement came after Ali Akhbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Monday that Tehran had doubled the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges operating in the country to 60.

A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. An IR-6 centrifuge can produce enriched uranium 10 times faster than an IR-1, Iranian officials say.

Iranian scientists also are working on a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50 times faster than the IR-1, Salehi said.

As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. At the 4.5% level, it is enough to help power Iran’s Bushehr reactor, the country’s only nuclear power plant. Before the atomic deal, Iran only reached up to 20%.

Tehran has gone from producing 1 pound of low-enriched uranium a day to 11 pounds, Salehi said. Iran now holds over 1,102 pounds of low-enriched uranium, Salehi said. The deal had limited Iran to 661 pounds.

The collapse of the nuclear deal coincided with a tense summer of attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities that the United States blamed on Iran. Tehran denied the allegation, though it did seize oil tankers and shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone.

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