WASHINGTON - The United States criticized Iran's statement that it had begun the process of enriching uranium to 20%, well above the limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal that Washington abandoned, as a form of "nuclear extortion."
"Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent at Fordow is a clear attempt to increase its campaign of nuclear extortion, an attempt that will continue to fail," said a State Department spokesperson on condition of anonymity. They were responding to a query about Iran's statement that it had resumed 20% uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility.
Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Iran's arch foe Israel, said the move was aimed at developing nuclear weapons and Israel would never allow Tehran to build them.
The enrichment decision, Iran's latest contravention of the accord, coincides with increasing tensions between Iran and the United States in the last days of President Donald Trump's administration.
Tehran started violating the accord in 2019 in a step-by-step response to Trump's withdrawal from it in 2018 and the reimposition of US sanctions lifted under the deal.
The agreement's main aim was to extend the time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to at least a year from roughly two to three months. It also lifted international sanctions against Tehran.
"A few minutes ago, the process of producing 20% enriched uranium has started in Fordow enrichment complex," government spokesman Ali Rabiei told Iranian state media.
The UN nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran had started the process of enriching uranium to 20% purity at its Fordow site.
"Iran today began feeding uranium already enriched up to 4.1 percent U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment up to 20%," the IAEA said in a statement on a report that was sent to member states.
The step was one of many mentioned in a law passed by Iran's parliament last month in response to the killing of the country's top nuclear scientist, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.
"Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL (parties to the deal)," tweeted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Tehran insists it can quickly reverse its breaches if US sanctions are removed. Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20, has said the United States will rejoin the deal "if Iran resumes strict compliance" with the pact.
The Biden transition team declined to comment on Monday about Iran's enrichment move.