Iran said on Saturday it was now capable of raising uranium enrichment past the 20 per cent level and had launched advanced centrifuge machines in further breaches of commitments to limit its nuclear activity under a crumbling deal with world powers.
“We have started lifting limitations on our research and development imposed by the deal. It will include development of more rapid and advanced centrifuges,” Iranian nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi told a televised news conference.
The 2015 pact curbed Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for relief from sanctions, but has unravelled since the United States pulled out of it last year and acted to strangle Iran’s oil trade to push it into wider security concessions.
Since May, Iran has begun to exceed limits on its nuclear capacity set by the pact in retaliation for US pressure on Iran to negotiate restrictions on its ballistic missile programme and support for proxy forces around the Middle East.
Iran says its measures are reversible if European signatories to the accord manage to restore its access to foreign trade promised under the nuclear deal but blocked by the re-imposition of US sanctions.
The deal capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium at 3.67pc — suitable for civilian power generation and far below the 90pc threshold of nuclear weapons grade.
UN nuclear inspectors reported in July that Iran had cranked up enrichment to 4.5pc purity.
Kamalvandi said Tehran could now exceed the 20pc level, a significant leap towards the critical 90pc, “but right now there is no need for that”.
The deal capped the number of machines that enrich uranium installed in Iran at some 6,000, down from around 19,000 before 2015. It allowed Iran to refine uranium only with slow, first-generation IR-1 centrifuges and to use small numbers of more advanced centrifuges solely for research, but without stockpiling enriched uranium, for a period of 10 years. But Kamalvandi said Iran had started using an array of more advanced centrifuges as part of its gradual steps to downgrade its nuclear commitments. “This includes IR-6 machines which have now been fed (uranium) gas. A chain of 20 IR-4 centrifuges has also been started. The IR-6 has also started as a chain of 20 since yesterday,” he said.