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Iran to boost uranium enrichment levels in wake of Israeli attack

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Iran is to boost its levels of uranium enrichment to 60%, just short of weapons grade purity, in response to Israel’s attack on the Natanz nuclear facility, the country’s deputy foreign minister has announced.

Seyed Abbas Araghchi broke the news as he arrived in Vienna for the start of talks this week on how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal and bring back both the US and Iran into compliance.

Iran lifted the level of uranium enrichment to 20% in January in response to the assassination of its lead nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

The 2015 nuclear deal only allows enrichment to a purity level of 3.67%. Araghchi also announced he was informing the UN nuclear watchdog that Iran was planning to install a thousand new centrifuges capable of operating at a higher level than those that had been destroyed in the attack.

The news came as a commercial vessel owned by an Israeli firm was attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in Gulf waters. Israel’s Channel 12 quoted unnamed Israeli officials as blaming Iran for the assault, which it described as a missile strike. There were no casualties and the Bahamian-flagged, Israeli-owned Hyperion Ray continued on its course, the TV channel added.

Earlier, the foreign minister, Javad Zarid, had claimed Israel had made a “very bad gamble” following the attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, saying Iran would start to deploy more sophisticated centrifuges.

“Israel played a very bad gamble if it thought that the attack will weaken Iran’s hand in the nuclear talks,” Javad Zarif said at a news conference in the Iranian capital. “On the contrary, it will strengthen our position.”

Zarif spoke alongside the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who also condemned the alleged Israeli strike on Iran’s most important nuclear site, the second within a year.

Israel has not confirmed its involvement. However, the country’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, called for an inquiry into a leak of information, saying Israel’s traditional policy of ambiguity was being compromised, possibly due to inter-agency rivalry.

The US has said it played no role in the sophisticated attack “in any manner”, but has left unclear whether it was given advance warning of Israel’s actions. There is some concern that US intelligence officials may have leaked the details in a sign of disapproval, possibly as it could upend Joe Biden’s attempts to move ahead with negotiations that Israel opposes.

Araghchi’s announcement will destabilise the already finely balanced talks in Vienna and is designed as a warning to the US that it either reins in its ally Israel or risk the complete collapse of the nuclear deal constraining Iran’s nuclear activities.

Zarif said there had been no loss of bargaining leverage in Vienna, adding the plant would receive more advanced replacement centrifuges shortly. He said there was a timer on the talks in Vienna. Without elaborating, he said: “If they miss this opportunity, they’ll face unpleasant conditions.”

However, the chairman of the Islamic Parliament Research Center, Alireza Zakani, said several thousand centrifuges were out of order at Natanz. He claimed 300lbs of explosives were smuggled into the highly guarded plant without being noticed in a part that had been sent abroad for repair. He claimed Iranian officials were aghast and furious when they saw the scale of the damage.

Zakani claimed the attack had been part of a western plot to force Iran to make concessions in the talks, but he said Iran should respond by increasing the level of uranium enrichment to 60%.

Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy commission, said the perpetrators had hit an electricity substation 50 metres underground. He said: “The design of the enemy was very beautiful, if I look at it scientifically. They … hired their experts, and it exploded in a way that damaged both that power distribution system and the emergency cable that came from the generators.”

Despite the anger, Seyed Araghchi, the lead Iranian negotiator, went ahead with his plans to fly to Vienna for the restart of talks likely to be focused on the sanctions that the US is prepared to lift in return for Iran coming back into compliance with the deal. China and Russia, both involved in the Vienna talks, along with UK, France and Germany, have urged Iran not to pull out, arguing this would play into Israel’s hands.

The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, came the closest of any senior European official to criticising the attack, saying it was not a positive contribution. Araghchi is bound to push the US to give an explanation of its knowledge of the attack, and to demand a condemnation.

The attack is hardly likely to make the Iranians more flexible in their negotiating stance, and much depends on whether the US will lift all sanctions imposed on Iran since 2016, or only those classified as linked to the nuclear deal. The Biden administration has said some of the sanctions are not nuclear related, but instead triggered by Iranian human rights violations, support for terrorism in the region and by Iran’s missile programme.