Iran has started 60 percent uranium enrichment at its Natanz plant, the country’s nuclear chief said, days after an explosion at the site that Tehran blamed on Israel.

The move is likely to raise tensions even as Iran negotiates in Vienna over a way to allow the US back into the agreement and lift the crushing economic sanctions it faces. However, its scope also provides Iran with a way to quickly de-escalate if it chooses.

“We are producing about nine grams of 60 percent enriched uranium an hour,” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, said on Friday. “But we have to work on arrangements to drop it to 5 grams per hour.”

Earlier, parliament speaker Mohammad Qalibaf said Iranian scientists had successfully started enriching 60 percent uranium at 12:40 am local time (0810 GMT).

“The will of the Iranian nation makes miracles that thwart any conspiracy,” Qalibaf said on Twitter.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s nuclear programme, had earlier this week sent its inspectors to Natanz and confirmed Tehran was preparing to begin 60 percent enrichment at an above-ground facility at the site.

The announcement also marks a significant escalation after the attack this past weekend that damaged centrifuges at Natanz that is suspected of having been carried out by Israel. While Israel has yet to claim it, it comes amid a long-running shadow war between the two Mideast rivals.

Iran has said its decision to increase enrichment to its highest level ever was in response to sabotage at Natanz.

Iran and global powers are meeting in Vienna to rescue a 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Washington three years ago, in an effort potentially complicated by Tehran’s decision to ramp up uranium enrichment.

The 2015 agreement sought to make it harder for Iran to develop an atomic bomb – something it denies ever trying to do – in return for lifting sanctions.

Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in Vienna, said earlier this week that Iran would activate 1,000 advanced centrifuge machines at Natanz.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, though the West and the IAEA say Tehran had an organised military nuclear program up until the end of 2003.

An annual US intelligence report released on Tuesday maintained the American assessment that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.”


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