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Iran Says Blackout At Underground Atomic Facility Is 'Nuclear Terrorism'

NOEL KING, HOST:

Iran's foreign minister claims Israel is behind an attack that damaged an Iranian nuclear facility on Sunday. He says Iran reserves the right to respond to what it calls an act of nuclear terrorism. Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The incident at Natanz was initially described as a problem with the electrical grid that cut power just as Iranian technicians began using advanced centrifuges to speed up its enrichment of nuclear fuel. No description of the extent of the damage was immediately released. Low-enriched uranium can be used to fuel a nuclear power plant or, if enriched to a much higher level, in a nuclear warhead. The Natanz incident and Tehran's response was the lead item on Iran's English-language Press TV channel.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Iran's nuclear chief has condemned the latest incident at its Natanz uranium enrichment facility as an act of nuclear terrorism. Ali Akbar Salehi said, the futile and desperate enemy move was aimed at blocking Iran's eye-catching nuclear progress.

KENYON: The damage to Natanz comes as U.S. and Iranian negotiators are cautiously exploring the possibility of Washington lifting sanctions and Iran reducing its stockpile of nuclear fuel and reversing other violations of the 2015 nuclear agreement that former President Donald Trump walked away from in 2018. Those talks are due to resume this week in Vienna. Israel is strongly opposed to the talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met Sunday with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, has promised that Israel will do everything in its power to prevent the restoration of the Iran nuclear deal. Iran has blamed Israel for a string of attacks on its nuclear scientists, including a roadside ambush of a leading scientist outside Tehran last November.

There were no reports of injuries or radiation leaks at the Natanz site. State TV carried Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's remarks naming Israel as the source of the attack and vowing that Iran would take its revenge. Iran has been steadily accelerating its nuclear activities since the U.S. pulled out of the deal, ramping up its enrichment of uranium. It now has a stockpile of 20% enriched uranium that greatly exceeds the amount permitted under the nuclear deal. A foreign ministry spokesman says Tehran will replace any damaged centrifuges at Natanz with more advanced models.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "23.01.2018") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.