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Iran Says It's Reopening Its Most Controversial Uranium Enrichment Facility


Iran's president made a big announcement today. The country is ramping up uranium enrichment at a secure underground facility that breaches an important part of the international nuclear deal - the deal that President Trump pulled out of, saying it wasn't tough enough. Today the State Department called Iran's announcement nuclear extortion. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on what it could mean.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani made the announcement on state television.


PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) The steps that we will take as of Wednesday will be at the Fordow nuclear facility. We have some...

BRUMFIEL: The Fordow facility contains over a thousand centrifuges that Iran can use to enrich uranium gas. It is among the most controversial parts of its nuclear program. That program, Iran says, is peaceful, but Fordow looks a lot more like a military installation. It's very deep underground, and it was kept secret until 2009, when the U.S., France and Britain uncovered it. The U.S. and Europe insisted that Iran stop enriching uranium at Fordow as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. Rouhani says they're starting again.

ARIANE TABATABAI: This is a major step.

BRUMFIEL: Ariane Tabatabai is an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation. Iran has been gradually crossing limits in the deal for months, accumulating uranium, restarting research. Tabatabai worries Fordow may be a step too far.

TABATABAI: It does make it politically a lot more difficult for us to go back because Fordow, from a political perspective and from a proliferation perspective, has been such a big deal.

BRUMFIEL: President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal last year and used sanctions to block Iran from getting the economic benefits it was promised. Europe has been trying to find a workaround, says Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the U.K. Negotiations have intensified in recent months, but so far, she says, it hasn't come to much.

ANISEH BASSIRI TABRIZI: Short answer - no, there hasn't been any progress.

BRUMFIEL: European powers aren't happy about today's announcement, Tabrizi says, but they haven't set any red lines for when they would leave the deal.

BASSIRI TABRIZI: They are in a very difficult spot at the moment because they know the likely consequences also of them walking away.

BRUMFIEL: She says Iran might kick out inspectors, further increase enrichment and stop abiding by the deal altogether. If that happens, most experts agree Iran will be within months to weeks of getting the material it needs for a nuclear weapon.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.