Iran fires up advanced uranium centrifuges installed at Natanz site

Iran fires up advanced uranium centrifuges installed at Natanz site – a day after it emerged Trump had asked for options on attacking the facility

  • Iran has started pumping nuclear fuel into banned centrifuges at Natanz 
  • Trump was talked out of a bombardment of that facility last week, reports said 
  • US President was reacting to news that banned machines were being used 
  • Today new report shows that nuclear fuel is now being pumped into centrifuges
  • The flaunted breach of the Obama-era nuclear pact could inflame tensions

Iran has fired up advanced uranium centrifuges installed at its underground Natanz site a day after it emerged Donald Trump asked for options on attacking the facility.

Tehran is pumping nuclear fuel into high-tech IR-2m machines at Natanz, in contravention of an international deal to only use first generation IR-1 machines, a UN report revealed today.

Trump held an Oval Office meeting last week where he was ‘talked out of’ launching strikes on Iran after a previous UN report showed a massive increase in nuclear stockpiles in breach of the Obama-era pact which Trump abandoned in 2018.

Defence sources told The New York Times that Trump asked for options on a bombardment – likely to have targeted Iran’s foremost nuclear facility, Natanz. 

Last week’s report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showed an interlinked cluster of IR-2ms had been moved underground into Natanz. But significantly, that report said no fuel had yet been added. 

Tuesday’s report, revealed today, states that uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas, the fuel which activates the centrifuges, is now being pumped into those banned IR-2ms. 

Tehran is pumping nuclear energy from an interlinked cluster of high-tech IR-2m machines at Natanz, in contravention of an international deal to only use first generation IR-1 machines 

U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office before delivering an update about the ‘Operation Warp Speed’ program last week

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran earlier this year

The IAEA’s latest report to member states says: ‘On 14 November 2020, the Agency verified that Iran began feeding UF6 into the recently installed cascade of 174 IR-2m centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) in Natanz.’

Iran’s flaunted breach of the nuclear agreement could inflame tensions within the White House over whether an attack on Iran is justified.

Tehran yesterday reacted furiously to the suggestion that the US president was considering an attack on its soil.

Ali Rabiei, an Iranian government spokesman, warned that ‘any action against the Iranian nation would certainly face a crushing response.’  

In a further provocation today, Iran said it will ‘automatically’ return to its commitments under the 2018 deal if Joe Biden lifts sanctions imposed over the past two years.

Tehran’s return to its commitments ‘can be done automatically and needs no conditions or even negotiations,’ Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in comments published in the state-run media on Wednesday. 

Zarif argued that ‘America is obligated to implement Resolution 2231 as a member of the United Nations and its Security Council,’ pointing to the UNSC resolution that enshrined the 2015 nuclear deal.

‘If it does carry out this resolution and sanctions are lifted and there are no obstacles to Iran’s economic activities, then Iran will carry out’ its obligations under the deal, he said.

Iran, which denies it is seeking to build a nuclear bomb, has since May 2019 gradually suspended most of its key obligations under the agreement.

It argued it was reacting to the sanctions and the inability of the other parties – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – to provide Tehran with the deal’s promised economic benefits.

Zarif described Biden as a ‘foreign affairs veteran’ whom he has known for 30 years.

Once in the White House, Biden could ‘lift all of these (sanctions) with three executive orders,’ Zarif argued.

If Biden’s administration does so, Iran’s return to nuclear commitments will be ‘quick’, the minister added.

Defence sources told The New York Times that Trump asked for options on a bombardment – likely to have targeted Iran’s foremost nuclear facility, Natanz

The Natanz complex is mostly underground and is among the sites now monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency after Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers

Iran has breached many restrictions imposed by the 2015 deal on its atomic activities, including on the purity to which it enriches uranium and its stock of enriched uranium.

These breaches came in response to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018 and the re-imposition of sanctions against that had been lifted under the accord.

Trump last Thursday, is reported to have asked his top national security aides including vice president Mike Pence, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and joint chiefs chairman Mark Milley about a potential strike.  

Miller is holding the top Pentagon job after Trump fired previous defense secretary Mark Esper last Monday.  

Trump’s advisers ultimately dissuaded him from launching a strike by warning that such action could trigger a wider conflict with Iran, an official source said. 

A source confirmed the account of the meeting to Reuters, saying: ‘He asked for options. They gave him the scenarios and he ultimately decided not to go forward.’ 

Most of the Natanz complex is underground and is believed to be bomb-proof.

Last week’s IAEA report revealed that Iran’s uranium stockpile is now 12 times larger than the limit set under the Obama-era pact which Trump abandoned in 2018. 

The agency said that as of November 2 Iran had a stockpile of around 2,440kg of low-enriched uranium, up from 2,100kg on August 25.

The limit under the deal signed with Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia is just over 200kg. 

The IAEA also reported that Iran has also been continuing to enrich uranium to a purity of up to 4.5 per cent, higher than the 3.67 per cent allowed under the deal. 

The UN watchdog said that Iran had barred its inspectors from accessing another site where there was evidence of past nuclear activity. 

While Trump decided against a missile strike, he may still be looking into ways to strike Iranian assets and allies, including militias in Iraq, it is believed.  

The US accuses Iran of backing terrorists in Gaza, Syria and Iraq, including a group who attacked the US embassy in Baghdad last December. 

Days later, Trump ordered the drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, sparking several alarming days of high tensions and a barrage of Iranian missile strikes on US bases in Iraq.  

Donald Trump reportedly asked advisers for a list of options on how to take action against Iran, which could include a missile strike, a cyber-attack or an operation involving Israel. But Iran warned today that any US action would be met with a ‘crushing’ response. Tehran previously fired missiles at US bases in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of general Qassem Soleimani in January, and Iran is also suspected of being behind cyber-attacks and mysterious explosions on Persian Gulf shipping 

The crisis eventually eased after the Revolutionary Guard shot down a passenger plane with dozens of Iranians on board, turning the public mood against the regime.  

Trump’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’ has also seen the US military carry out cyber-attacks against Iran, which in turn has been linked to cyber-attacks on power stations and utilities in Israel. 

The US was also behind an Israeli operation in Iran which killed al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Abdullah Ahmad Abdullah, according to a separate report last week. 

Abdullah, who went by the nom-de-guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was secretly shot and killed in Tehran by Israeli operatives on a motorcycle at Washington’s behest, it is believed.

The operation is said to have taken place on August 7 on the anniversary of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, which were carried out by al-Qaeda. 

Iran denied the report of Abdullah’s killing, claiming on Saturday that it was ‘made-up information’ and blaming US policies for the emergence of al-Qaeda.   

But Washington has previously accused Iran of harbouring members of the terror group behind 9/11 and allowing them to pass through its territory.

Inside Natanz, Iran’s main nuclear facility

Natanz, also known as the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, is one of Iran’s central nuclear enrichment facilities, located around 200 miles south of the capital in Tehran.

It became subject to monitoring by the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency after Iran inked a nuclear accord with US, Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia in 2015. 

Last week the IAEA released a report which found that Iran’s uranium stockpile at Natanz is now 12 times larger than the limit set under the nuclear accord. 

The agency said that as of November 2 Iran had a stockpile of 2,442.9 kilograms (5,385.7 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, up from 2,105.4 kilograms (4,641.6 pounds) reported on August 25.

The nuclear deal allows Iran only to keep a stockpile of 202.8 kilograms (447 pounds).

The IAEA report also acknowledged that Iran was building an underground advanced centrifuge assembly plant after its last one exploded in an apparent sabotage attack last summer. 

Images released the same day as the report showed that construction had begun at Natanz.  

Since August, Iran has built a new or regraded road to the south of Natanz toward what analysts believe is a former firing range for security forces at the enrichment facility, images from San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc. show.

One of the images taken on November 9 shows the site cleared away with what appears to be construction equipment there, while an October 21 image from Maxar Technologies shows trucks, cars, backhoes and other vehicles at the cleared site.

Analysts from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies say they believe the site is undergoing excavation.

Satellite images released last week showed construction underway at Natanz

A fire destroyed a building at the Iranian nuclear complex in July

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