Iran has produced 55 kilograms (121 lbs) of uranium enriched to 20 percent since the beginning of the year in defiance of the 2015 nuclear deal, a senior Iranian official said Wednesday.
The announcement came a day after the US and Iran began indirect talks aimed at finding a path for both countries to return to the deal.
The production rate is even faster than the goal of enriching 120 kg (260 lbs) of uranium a year, or 10 kg per month, stipulated by an Iranian law passed last year that aimed to pressure the US in response to crippling sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
Iran’s production rate is already “up to 40%” faster than that, Atomic Energy Organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi told state TV, according to Reuters.
“In less than four months we have produced 55 kg of 20% enriched uranium … in around eight months we can reach 120 kg,” Kamalvandi said.
Uranium enriched to 20% is a short technical step away from weapons-grade 90% enrichment.
Iran has been steadily violating the restrictions of the deal, including on the amount of enriched uranium it can stockpile and the purity to which it can enrich it. Tehran’s moves have been calculated to put pressure on the other nations in the deal — Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain — to do more to offset crippling sanctions reimposed under Trump, but they also bring Iran potentially closer to the bomb.
The US, Iran and Russia reacted positively Tuesday to the opening exchanges in a first day of talks in Vienna aimed at rescuing the deal.
All sides reported progress on reviving the deal following the Tuesday meeting, which saw the Biden administration and Iran hold indirect talks on the agreement for the first time.
US President Joe Biden has said he is ready to reverse the decision of his predecessor Donald Trump to withdraw from the landmark 2015 agreement, negotiated to ensure that Iran did not develop a military nuclear program, but the White House has insisted that Iran first return to compliance. Tehran demands the US first lift sanctions, putting the sides at a stalemate.
After Moscow gave a positive assessment of the opening of the talks earlier Tuesday, Washington’s reaction a little later was also upbeat. Iran, too, described the opening talks as “constructive.”
“I can say that overall, the meeting was constructive,” the head of the Iranian delegation, Abbas Araghchi, said in a video on Iranian broadcaster Irinn.
The United States was not present at those discussions because Iran has refused to meet the US delegation so long as its sanctions against Tehran remain in place. The European Union is acting as an intermediary.
Since Trump pulled the US out of the deal with Iran in 2018, re-imposing sanctions on Tehran, the remaining parties have been struggling to save the agreement, as Iran has gradually stepped up its nuclear activities, including by enriching uranium past the deal’s limits and barring inspectors from accessing sensitive sites.
Israel is strongly opposed to a return to the nuclear deal in its original form, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Wednesday that Israel will not be bound by a revitalized nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, declaring that the Jewish state is obligated only to defending itself against those who seek to destroy it.
In a speech at the Yad Vashem memorial museum during Israel’s official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, Netanyahu referred to negotiations in Vienna.
“A deal with Iran that threatens us with annihilation will not obligate us,” Netanyahu declared.
“Unlike in the past, today there is no one in the world that will deprive us of the right and the might to defend ourselves from an existential threat,” he said. “The nuclear deal with Iran is once again on the table. Such deals with extreme regimes are worthless.”
“I say to our closest friends too: ‘A deal with Iran that threatens us with annihilation will not obligate us.’ Only one thing will obligate us: to prevent those who wish to destroy us from carrying out their plans.”
Netanyahu has often used his speeches at Holocaust-related events to invoke Iran as the new existential threat to the Jewish people’s existence.
The shadow war between Israel and Iran has spilled into the sea in recent months, with both sides accusing each other of attacking a number of merchant ships, damaging them with explosives. The vessels in each case were only lightly damaged and there were no injuries in the incidents.
Tensions in the Middle East have heated in recent months as Iran repeatedly violated the terms of the nuclear deal, possibly to increase its leverage ahead of talks with the Biden administration.
Israel has repeatedly communicated its opposition to returning to the deal to Washington. The sides recently reestablished a bilateral group for cooperating in the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, agreeing to set up a joint team for sharing intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program.