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Iran says it will enrich uranium to 60 percent purity after Natanz attack

After suspected Israeli attack on nuclear plant, Iranian official says Tehran will increase enrichment capacity at the same facility
An engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, 10 April (AFP/ Iranian presidential office handout)

Iran will start enriching uranium at 60 percent purity - up from the current enrichment level of 20 percent, in response to a suspected Israeli attack on its Natanz nuclear facility.

Iran's deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi told the state-affiliated Press TV that Tehran will not only replace the centrifuges damaged at Natanz, which was targeted by a covert operation blamed on Israel, but it will also increase their capacity.

Weapons-grade uranium is enriched at more than 90 percent. The nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), capped Iran's enrichment programme at 3.67 percent.

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The JCPOA saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy.

Tehran has been loosening its commitments to the agreement since former US President Donald Trump nixed the deal in 2018 and started piling sanctions on the Iranian economy.

Tuesday's announcement comes two days before a round of indirect talks between the United States and Iran in Vienna to revive the deal.

The White House had explicitly denied responsibility for the Natanz operation, saying it remains focused on diplomacy to revive the nuclear accord.

"We, of course, have seen the reports of the incident at the Natanz enrichment facility. The US was not involved in any manner," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

Israeli and American media outlets cited Israeli intelligence officials as saying that the country was behind the incident, which targeted the power sources that operate centrifuges at the nuclear plant.

"Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran's aggression and terrorism," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday at a joint press conference with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Austin had avoided discussing Iran during the briefing, but he later wrote in a tweet that he discussed a range of issues with the Israeli premier, "including Iran's destabilizing activities".

On Tuesday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held a virtual meeting with Israeli officials as part of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group, which is intended to keep the Israeli government informed about the Biden administration's policies in the region.

"Mr Sullivan reaffirmed the Biden-Harris administration’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and to ensuring that Iran will never obtain a nuclear weapon," the White House said in a statement. 

"The officials expressed their shared interest in maintaining a close and open dialogue in the months ahead. Mr Sullivan warmly invited his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, to visit Washington before the end of this month for follow-up consultations."