Iran President Calls 60% Enrichment An Answer To 'evilness'

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Iran's president on Wednesday called his country's decision to dramatically increase its uranium enrichment after saboteurs attacked a nuclear site "an answer to your evilness," saying Israel hoped to derail ongoing talks aimed at reviving Tehran's tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

This weekend's sabotage at the Natanz nuclear facility appears to be part of an escalating shadow war between the two countries. Israeli authorities have not commented on the attack, but are widely suspected of having carried it out.

Iran announced Tuesday it would increase uranium enrichment up to 60%, its highest level ever, in response to the attack. That could draw further retaliation as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed never to allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon. While Iran's move keeps enrichment below weapons-grade levels of 90%, it is a short step away.

Speaking to his Cabinet, an impassioned President Hassan Rouhani said the first-generation IR-1 centrifuges that were damaged in the attack would be replaced by advanced IR-6 centrifuges that enrich uranium much faster.

"You wanted to make our hands empty during the talks but our hands are full," Rouhani said.

He was referring to ongoing talks in Vienna that are aimed at finding a way for the United States to re-enter Tehran's nuclear agreement and have Iran comply again with its limits. The accord prevented Iran from stockpiling enough high-enriched uranium to be able to pursue a nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Rouhani added: "60% enrichment is an answer to your evilness. ... We cut off both of your hands, one with IR-6 centrifuges and another one with 60%."

Rouhani also accused Israel of being behind the Natanz attack.

"Apparently this is a crime by the Zionists. If the Zionists take an action against our nation, we will respond," he said, without elaborating.

In Jerusalem at a Memorial Day commemoration, Netanyahu appeared to reference Iran.

"We must never remain apathetic to the threats of war and extermination of those who seek to eliminate us," he said.

Officials initially said the enrichment would begin Wednesday. However, an early Wednesday morning tweet from Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazem Gharibabadi, suggested it might come later.

"Modification of the process just started and we expect to accumulate the product next week," Gharibabadi wrote.

He later posted a letter addressed to IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi warning against "any adventurism by (the) Israeli regime" against Iranian nuclear sites.

"The most-recent cowardly act of nuclear terrorism will only strengthen our determination to march forward and to replace all (damaged) centrifuges with even more advanced and sophisticated machines," Gharibabadi wrote. "Even the most insane criminals will finally -- and soon -- realize they must never threaten Iranians."

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, though the West and the IAEA say Tehran had an organized military nuclear program up until the end of 2003. An annual U.S. intelligence report released Tuesday maintained the American assessment that "Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device."

The talks in Vienna are aimed at reviving America's role in the agreement -- and lifting the sanctions that former President Donald Trump imposed after unilaterally withdrawing America from the accord in 2018. Rouhani in his comments Wednesday insisted Iran still seeks a negotiated settlement over its program.

"The U.S. should return to the same conditions of 2015 when we signed the nuclear deal," Rouhani said.

Iran previously had said it could use uranium enriched up to 60% for nuclear-powered ships. However, the Islamic Republic currently has no such ships in its navy. The IAEA has confirmed that Iran informed it of its plans to enrich up to 60%.

Iran had been enriching up to 20% -- and even that was a short technical step to weapons-grade levels.

The weekend attack at Natanz was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls -- but later Iranian officials began calling it an attack.

Alireza Zakani, the hard-line head of the Iranian parliament's research center, referred to "several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed" in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.