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Iran begins enriching uranium to highest ever level

Iran begins enriching uranium to highest ever level
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Iran on Friday officially increased the purity of uranium it enriches to its highest ever level of 60 percent, a move likely to put further pressure on talks in Vienna to restore its nuclear agreement with world powers. 

The Associated Press reported that a top Iranian official said a few grams of uranium gas per hour would be enriched to 60 percent purity. The amount is much lower than the weapons-grade level of 90 percent, but much higher than any level Iran has produced thus far. 

Iran’s Parliament Speaker, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, unveiled the news on Twitter, writing, “The young and God-believing Iranian scientists managed to achieve a 60% enriched uranium product.” 

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“I congratulate the brave nation of Islamic Iran on this success,” he added. “The Iranian nation’s willpower is miraculous and can defuse any conspiracy.” 

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nation's nuclear watchdog, confirmed Saturday that Iran had enriched uranium beyond 60 percent, formalizing the latest violation of the Obama-era nuclear deal.

"In a report to Member States on the IAEA’s verification and monitoring in Iran, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said the Agency today verified that Iran had begun the production of UF6 enriched up to 60% U 235 by feeding UF6 enriched up to 5% U 235 simultaneously into two cascades of IR-4 centrifuges and IR-6 centrifuges at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant.  According to Iran, the enrichment level of the UF6 produced was 55.3% U-235. The Agency took a sample of the produced UF6 to independently verify the enrichment level declared by Iran," an IAEA spokesperson confirmed to The Hill.

One of Iran’s leading nuclear negotiators, Abbas Araghchi, warned Tuesday that Iran would be increasing the uranium purity, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday said that the move would be an "answer" to a Sunday sabotage attack at an underground nuclear facility, which Iran has said was caused by Israel. 

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh blamed Israel for the attack, calling it an act of “nuclear terrorism.” 

While the AP noted that Israel has not explicitly claimed responsibility for the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE has previously said that he would do anything to stop Iran’s nuclear program, calling it an “existential threat” to his country.

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Diplomats reconvened Friday in Vienna after talks resumed the day before on a possible return to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which had prevented Iran from developing enough high-enriched uranium to be able to make nuclear weapons. 

Former President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP-led Maricopa County board decries election recount a 'sham' Analysis: Arpaio immigration patrol lawsuit to cost Arizona county at least 2 million Conservatives launch 'anti-cancel culture' advocacy organization MORE in 2018 withdrew the U.S. from the agreement, thus fueling Iranian efforts to break its commitments in the deal. 

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBiden's quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies Overnight Defense: Administration approves 5M arms sale to Israel | Biden backs ceasefire in call with Netanyahu | Military sexual assault reform push reaches turning point Psaki won't say if Biden has seen Israeli intel on AP Gaza building MORE, speaking at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, condemned Iran’s move to enrich uranium to 60 percent purity. 

"We take very seriously its provocative announcement of an intent to begin enriching uranium at 60 percent. And the P5+1 should be unified and united in rejecting that," Blinken said, referring to the signatories to the original nuclear deal with Iran: the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China.

"I have to tell you the step calls into question around seriousness, with regard to the nuclear talks, just as it underscores the imperative of returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA," the secretary added, using the official name for the agreement.

While the increased enrichment and sabotage attack on Natanz threatened the talks, indirect negotiations are ongoing, with parties involved casting the discussions as productive.

However, Washington and Tehran remain in disagreement on what must happen for each power to return to compliance.

Washington maintains that Iran must return its uranium enrichment to the limits the deal set out.  Tehran maintains that sanctions imposed during the Trump administration must first be lifted for any changes to its nuclear program to be made.

Updated April 17, 5:49 p.m.

— Tal Axelrod contributed to this report