France, Germany and the UK have warned that Iran took a dangerous step towards the production of a nuclear weapon by enriching uranium to levels for which there is no “credible civilian need”.
Tehran, which claims its nuclear ambitions are limited to creating energy, announced this week it was boosting its levels of uranium enrichment to 60%, just short of weapons-grade purity. The 2015 nuclear deal only allows enrichment to a purity level of 3.67%.
On Wednesday, the three European powers released a joint statement saying they had noted the development with “grave concern”.
“This is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon. Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level,” they said.
“We also express our concern at the news that Iran plans to install 1,000 additional centrifuges at Natanz [nuclear plant], which will significantly increase Iran’s enrichment capacity.”
The statement came on the eve of the resumption of talks in Vienna on how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal constraining Iran’s nuclear activities. It said Iran’s move would “further complicate the diplomatic process”.
Iran made its move after its heavily guarded underground Natanz facility was attacked at the weekend, causing widespread damage to as many as 1,000 centrifuges. Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy, which is against the renewed talks, is widely regarded as responsible for the explosion in an assertion of its power in the midst of the Vienna negotiations to lift US sanctions on Iran.
The closest the European statement came to criticising Israel was a sentence saying: “We reject all escalatory measures by any actor.”
The apparently one-sided nature of the European statement will, in Iran’s eyes, only confirm Tehran’s growing view that Europe is not capable of showing any independence from the pro-Israel Biden administration.
The UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, said it had been informed by Iran that it would produce uranium hexafluoride enriched up to 60% uranium at the pilot fuel enrichment plant at Natanz, an above-ground facility more vulnerable to further attack.
The Vienna discussions had been centring on the precise measures the US is willing to lift among the 1,500 sanctions imposed by the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations, as well as the mechanism whereby Iran can verify that the lifting of the US sanctions enables Iran to do business. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has said this need not be a lengthy process, but his leadership, due to end in August, is under growing pressure.
Iran has insisted all sanctions imposed by Donald Trump since 2016 must be lifted. The US says it will lift only nuclear-related sanctions, leaving a grey area of sanctions listed as terrorist-related.
On Tuesday the US annual national intelligence assessment concluded: “We continue to assess that Iranians are not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.”