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European nations warn that Iran’s increased uranium enrichment fulfills no ‘credible’ civilian purpose

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a cabinet meeting Wednesday in Tehran. (Iranian Presidency Office/AP)

ISTANBUL — A group of European nations on Wednesday called Iran's plans to increase uranium enrichment to 60 percent purity "regrettable" and warned that enrichment at that level, using advanced centrifuges, had no "credible" civilian purpose.

The joint statement — by Germany, France and Britain, which are among the signatories to the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers — also warned that Iran’s actions could complicate diplomatic efforts to revive the deal, which languished after the United States withdrew from the accord three years ago under the Trump administration.

“This is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon,” the three nations said. “We call upon Iran not to further complicate the diplomatic process.”

Iran announced Tuesday that it was increasing its uranium enrichment levels, in what was widely seen as retaliation for a suspected Israeli attack on a key Iranian nuclear site days earlier. The announcement brought Iran closer to being able to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels of more than 90 percent and exceeded its current top level of 20 percent.

Iranian officials said the attack on the Natanz nuclear site damaged centrifuges and caused a fire and blackout at the facility. Israel neither confirmed nor denied that it had played a role.

The European statement reflected growing international alarm over events in the Middle East. A once-furtive conflict between Israel and Iran has burst into the open, marked by more frequent and more audacious tit-for-tat attacks, including at sea. In turn, the attack on the Natanz facility and Tehran’s reaction have cast a cloud over delicate negotiations underway in Vienna aimed at restoring the nuclear deal.

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Iran began breaching the accord after President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, reimposed sanctions on Tehran that had been lifted under the agreement, and added more than 1,500 other measures as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at crippling Iran’s economy.

In response, Iran increased uranium enrichment levels from the 3.67 percent purity stipulated by the deal to 20 percent — a relatively short, technical step from the 90 percent needed for the fissile material in a nuclear weapon. Iran says that it is not seeking to obtain nuclear weapons and that its atomic program is for peaceful civilian purposes.

President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that Iran would activate advanced centrifuges at Natanz, casting the move, along with the increased enrichment levels, as “an answer to your malice,” in an apparent reference to Israel. Iran’s actions, he added in comments to the cabinet, would also win it leverage in the Vienna talks.

“We are entering the negotiations with a fuller hand,” he said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

But other participants in the Vienna negotiations characterized the talks as imperiled, either because of Iran’s actions or those of its adversaries.

“Those who undertook an act of sabotage against the nuclear facility in Natanz probably wanted to undermine the process of #JCPOA restoration. They underestimated the possibility of significant ‘side effects,’ ” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, tweeted Tuesday, referring to the nuclear deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The White House on Tuesday called Iran’s vow to increase enrichment levels “provocative” and said it “calls into question Iran’s seriousness with regard to the nuclear talks.”

A senior European diplomat familiar with the negotiations also voiced frustration.

“It’s a very serious development, I have to say, because up until now they have been doing things that were difficult to justify but more or less in the domain of a country that wants to control the full nuclear cycle,” the diplomat said, referring to Iran’s enrichment announcement. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the sensitive closed-door negotiations.

“If you escalate, the others will be obliged to escalate, and we will be playing into the hands of those who do not want negotiations.” 

Participants in the Vienna talks were set to reconvene in a plenary session Thursday. The talks, while characterized as constructive by key participants, have not yet arrived at a formula that will fulfill Iran’s key demand for a sweeping removal of U.S. sanctions in exchange for Tehran’s renewed compliance with the terms of the deal.

On Wednesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, struck a pessimistic note in a televised address, warning that negotiations should not drag on while accusing the United States of doublespeak in its dealings with Iran.

“Their suggestions are often arrogant and humiliating, and it is not worth even considering them,” he said.

Birnbaum reported from St. Louis.

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