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Iran informs UN nuclear watchdog it will hike uranium enrichment capacity

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, said Tehran wants to buy 950 tonnes of uranium concentrate from Kazakhstan "within three years"
Michal Cizek (AFP/File)

Iran has notified the International Atomic Energy Agency that it has launched a plan to increase its uranium enrichment capacity, nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said Tuesday.

"A letter was submitted to the agency yesterday regarding the start of certain activities," said Salehi, a vice president and head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization.

The defiant move comes as European powers scramble to preserve the hard-fought 2015 accord over Iran's nuclear program following US President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the deal last month.

Salehi said that work has begun on the infrastructure for building advanced centrifuges at the Natanz facility, but vowed that the Islamic Republic's nuclear activities would remain within the framework of the crumbling agreement.

"If conditions allow, maybe tomorrow night at Natanz, we can announce the opening of the center for production of new centrifuges" for uranium enrichment, he said, quoted by conservative news agency Fars.

"What we are doing does not violate the (2015 nuclear) agreement," he said, noting that this was just the start of the production process and "does not mean that we will start assembling the centrifuges".

Under the 2015 agreement, Iran can build parts for the centrifuges as long as it does not put them into operation within the first decade. 

Salehi also emphasized that these moves "do not mean the negotiations [with Europe] have failed."

Joe Klamar (AFP/File)

Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi had earlier told the official ISNA news agency that Tehran intended to inform the IAEA "that the process of increasing the capacity to produce ... UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) ... will start on Tuesday.”

With partners in Berlin, Paris and London still reeling from US President Donald Trump's decision last month to exit the hard-fought 2015 accord, Kamalvandi said that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had ordered preparations to begin increasing uranium enrichment should the accord fall apart.

Khamenei on Monday warned European leaders to drop their "dream" of Tehran continuing to curb its nuclear program despite renewed economic sanctions.

Germany, France and Britain are three of the signatories of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between world powers and Iran, aimed at keeping Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

In the face of the US retreat, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and British Prime Minister Theresa May have all strongly defended the agreement as the best way to head off a regional arms race and have vowed with Russia and China, the two other signatory countries to the deal, to keep it alive.

The EU also has commercial interests tied up in the deal. European firms, especially those from France and Germany, rushed to invest in Iran following the 2015 accord, under which Tehran agreed to freeze its nuclear program in return for an end to punishing international sanctions.

Hoping to protect their interests, the Europeans have proposed hammering out a supplementary deal with Tehran covering its ballistic missile program as well as its interventions in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long railed against the deal, on Monday embarked on a three-day visit to Berlin, Paris, and London where he hopes to up pressure on Merkel, Macron, and May to withdraw from the deal.

Jack GUEZ  (AFP)

Ahead of Netanyahu's visits, Israel reportedly shared with German, French, and British security agencies some of the top-secret files obtained by his country pertaining to an alleged secret Iranian nuclear weapons program, including one document which formally transfers responsibility for the production of weapons-grade enriched uranium to Iran’s defense ministry.

Israel hopes that evidence from the secret nuclear archive will bolster Netanyahu's efforts to persuade his European counterparts to quit the deal, which Israel argues is invalid because it was based on the falsehood that Iran had never pursued a nuclear weapons program.

Israel's intelligence minister Yisrael Katz called Tuesday for the formulation of a military coalition against Iran should the Islamic Republic defy world powers and resume enriching military-grade uranium.

"If the Iranians don't surrender now, and try to return" to unsupervised uranium enrichment, "there should be a clear statement by the President of the United States and all of the Western coalition," Katz told Israeli public broadcaster Kan, adding that "the Arabs and Israel surely would be there too."

Katz said that the message should be that "if the Iranians return" to enriching uranium that could enable them to build a nuclear bomb, "a military coalition will be formed against them."

Israel is considered the leading military power in the Middle East and believed to be the only country in the region to possess nuclear weapons.

Israel itself maintains a policy of nondisclosure with regards to its nuclear capabilities, neither confirming nor denying whether it possessive nuclear arms.

AFP contributed to this report.

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