Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday called Iran's decision to enrich uranium to 60 percent purity, its highest level ever, a response to Israel's sabotage of the country's Natanz nuclear facility.
"Iran's 60 percent enrichment was a response to malice. You cannot commit a crime. If you do, we will cut off your hands," Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting, in remarks posted on his website.
He said by raising uranium enrichment from 3.67 percent, the limit allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, to 60 percent and by replacing first-generation IR-1 centrifuges with advanced IR-6 ones at Natanz, "they received the first response, and we cut off both their hands."
While Iran has always claimed that its nuclear program is peaceful, for power generation and medical purposes, its latest move brings the country a step closer to capability of building a nuclear bomb.
Angered at U.S. sanctions, Iran had already in January breached the nuclear deal by raising uranium enrichment to 20 percent, though far short of the weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.
The United States on Tuesday expressed concern over Iran's latest move, while Britain, France and Germany -- collectively known as the E3 -- issued a joint statement the following day, calling it "a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon."
"Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level," they said, while also criticizing Iran's plan to install 1,000 additional centrifuges at Natanz that will significantly increase its enrichment capacity.
Iran's moves come as parties to the 2015 nuclear agreement and the United States have started substantive discussions in Vienna with the objective of finding a way for Washington to re-enter the agreement it withdraw from in 2018.
"Iran's dangerous recent communication is contrary to the constructive spirit and good faith of these discussions," the three European governments said, while calling on Tehran "not to further complicate the diplomatic process."
Under the pact originally struck with six major powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States -- Iran agreed to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
But U.S. President Joe Biden's predecessor Donald Trump criticized the deal as flawed and pulled the United States out of it in May 2018.
Iran countered the U.S. move by increasing its nuclear activities beyond the limits set in the deal and developing its nuclear facilities and enrichment capabilities.
The New York Times reported that an explosive device was secretly brought into the Natanz facility and detonated remotely, destroying the power system.
It said the explosion had dealt a severe blow to Iran's ability to enrich uranium and that it could take at least nine months to restore Natanz's production.
Rouhani said that by sabotaging the Natanz facility, Israel sought to leave Iran with "empty hands" in the Vienna negotiations, but Tehran would attend the talks "with full hands" after the start of enrichment to 60 percent purity.
"We are strong. We will negotiate with the United States and teach them a lesson, as we have done before. We have a strong logic for negotiation and we can persuade the enemy," he said.
Demanding the lifting of U.S. sanctions, he said, "As soon as the other side returns to its obligations (under the nuclear deal), we will return to ours as well, provided that we see in practice that the fulfilment of these obligations is real."