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Iran Underground Lab Helps Produce More Low-Enriched Uranium

A view of the interior of the Fordo (Fordow) Uranium Conversion Facility in Qom, November 6, 2019
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) —

The head of Iran's nuclear program told The Associated Press on Monday that the country is now producing more low-enriched uranium daily, after restarting an underground lab.

Ali Akbar Salehi of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran made the comments as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also called on hard-liners to support the country's troubled nuclear deal, saying it could open up international arms sales for the Islamic Republic next year.

Iran has broken out of the accord's limits since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord between Tehran and world powers over a year ago.

Salehi told AP journalists in Tehran that the country is now producing at least 5.5 kilograms daily (12 pounds). That's compared to what Tehran had been producing — about 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium per day.

Salehi said that's due in part to restarting enrichment at Iran's underground Fordo (Fordow) nuclear facility.

"I believe (that) in total, 5.5 kilograms is the daily volume of uranium enrichment in Natanz and Fordo," Salehi told the AP, mentioning Iran's other nuclear facility at Natanz.

Iran currently enriches uranium to up to 4.5%, far below weapons-grade levels of 90%.

However, the more uranium it enriches over time will begin to narrow the so-called "breakout period" Iran would need to have enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb — should it choose to build one. Analysts had put that time at a year, under the restrictions of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. However, Western nations pushed for the nuclear deal over its concerns about the program.

Rouhani spoke on Monday in the city of Rafsanjan in Iran's southwest Kerman province, as part of a provincial tour ahead of planned parliamentary elections in February. The day before, in Yazd, he faced some heckling from a crowd of hard-liners, despite announcing the discovery of a 53-billion-barrel oil field in the country.

On Monday, he made a point to stress that "by continuing the nuclear deal, we will reach a huge political, defensive and security goal."

"If we save the nuclear deal, Iran's arms embargo will be lifted and we can buy weapons or sell our weapons to the world. This is one of the deal's significant impacts," Rouhani said.

The end of the weapons embargo, imposed by the United Nations, already worries the Trump administration.

Under the terms of the deal, a United Nations-imposed arms embargo on Iran is slated to be lifted in October 2020, five years after the accord's adoption.

However, it remains unclear whether the U.N. would allow the ban to be lifted, given the circumstances the crumbling deal finds itself in today.