Iran announced on Tuesday that it had completed a new centrifuge assembly center at the Natanz nuclear site, in a first step to incrementing its enrichment capacity.
While Iran said it would keep enrichment within limits set by the 2015 nuclear accord, the center’s opening seemed to signal that it could swing to industrial-level enrichment if that agreement, which the United States withdrew from last month, should further unravel.
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, told state television that the center’s construction had been “in line with our safeguard commitments but not publicly declared.”
A spokesman for the Iranian nuclear agency, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said a letter had been sent to the International Atomic Energy Agency explaining the action. He also told the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency that Tehran would increase its capacity to produce uranium hexafluoride, a feedstock for centrifuges.
It was unclear whether the assembly center would actually start to produce new centrifuges.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran stopped enriching uranium to the 20 % level that would permit for rapid development of a nuclear weapon and agreed to a limit of under 5 percent. It will adhere to that limit, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a speech on Monday.
It was also uncertain whether the opening of the centrifuge plant would have any compelling impact on Iran’s nuclear program, which continues to be closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
When Tehran agreed in 2015 to roll back its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international and United States sanctions, European companies rushed to enter the Iranian market. European governments have been working to keep the deal alive and protect those investments after President Trump dismayed many on the Continent by withdrawing and reimposing banking sanctions.
However, the American sanctions would still be a major issue, particularly for multinational companies, and several European firms have already declared plans to pull out of Iran. On Monday, the French group PSA, the maker of Peugeot and Citroën cars, which produces 440,000 vehicles a year in Iran, started closing its joint ventures with local auto manufacturers, though PSA said it would seek a waiver from the United States to maintain that production level.
In his speech, Ayatollah Khamenei warned the Europeans that Iran’s patience was limited, but analysts said that Tehran’s demands of guaranteed purchases of Iranian oil and free bank transfers with the European Union might exceed what the bloc could deliver in any rescue plan for the agreement.
“The Europeans expect the Iranian nation to tolerate and grapple with the sanctions, to give up their nuclear activities, which is an absolute requirement for the future of the country, and also to continue with the restrictions that have been imposed on them,” Ayatollah Khamenei said. “I would tell these governments that this bad dream will not come true.”