VIENNA — The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in a confidential document, seen by PassBlue, that Iran has added 17.6 kilograms of uranium, enriched up to 20 percent, to its total stockpile. The enrichment process, which had been announced by Iran in January, is occurring at Iran’s underground Fordow nuclear facility.
The 20 percent enrichment far exceeds the 3.67 percent purity allowed under the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed in 2015 by Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. (The US withdrew from it in 2018.) Experts suggest that the process, with other new information available on Iran’s nuclear activities, could enable the country to produce one nuclear weapon by the second quarter of 2022.
The IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, also revealed that it found unexplained man-made uranium particles collected by its inspectors in Iran last year.
The new information surfaces as the remaining parties to the Iran deal try to rescue it by beginning to discuss how the US can return legitimately as a partner to the pace while enticing Iran to comply as well. A meeting of delegates from all the parties could occur soon, European sources say, in possibly Vienna or Geneva. Yet the latest developments will likely complicate the first discussions. Iran has still not officially confirmed whether it will take part in such a meeting; the US has agreed to do so.
While enriched uranium can be used to produce fuel for a nuclear reactor, it can also be used to build a nuclear weapon, a process that requires enrichment purity of 90 percent. Nevertheless, experts warn that 20 percent purity is dangerous, as it can be turned into weapons grade relatively quickly.
The IAEA also reported that Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile had reached 2967.8 kilograms, an increase of 524.9 kilograms since the agency’s last report in November 2020. The nuclear deal had set a far lower limit, 300 kilograms, of enriched uranium.
“These are serious developments but not surprising ones,” Barbara Slavin, the director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told PassBlue. “Iran showed maximum patience for a long time after the Trump administration quit the JCPOA and has only ramped up these activities following the assassination — with apparent US approval — of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh by Israeli agents late last year.”
In addition, the Eurasia Group said in a report released on Feb. 24 that the latest breaches by Iran reflect “a desire to partially de-escalate a brewing nuclear crisis while retaining capacities to ramp up threatening behaviour if needed.”
Eurasia Group, a New York City risk-analysis organization, said that the latest increase in Iran’s nuclear stockpile seems to be at approximately 150 kilograms a month. That is below the 500 kilograms a month demanded by law through Iran’s parliament.
Iran has always contended that its nuclear program is peaceful and that it is now taking steps in retaliation against the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
In a separate development, the IAEA reported in another confidential report on Feb. 23, also seen by PassBlue, that it found “the presence of anthropogenic [man-made] uranium particles that required explanation by Iran” at two undeclared sites in the country. Iran has yet to provide an explanation about the findings to the UN agency.
The material was collected by UN inspectors inside Iran in August and September 2020 and analyzed at the IAEA’s lab in Seibersdorf, Austria. The report does not specify the exact location of the two undeclared sites in Iran.
Inspectors have thought for some time that the suspected sites could have been active in the early 2000s. This view was further supported after the IAEA received secret information from Israel that was collected during a high-risk operation inside Iran by the Mossad agency in January 2018. The information prompted the UN agency to request complementary access to the locations in January 2020, but it was barred from doing so by Iran.
Iran is obliged to provide such access as a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, including its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol, all accords separate from the Iran deal.
After a lengthy tug of war between the IAEA and Iran and the approval of a resolution slamming Iran by the agency’s board of governors in June 2020, Iran granted the inspectors access to the two sites.
The findings come in addition to multiple uranium particles that were discovered at another location in Iran in 2019, considered to be in Tehran’s Turquzabad district. The facility was described by Israel as a “secret atomic warehouse,” while Iran said it was a carpet-cleaning plant.
In its new report, the IAEA said all explanations from Iran on the matter are “not technically credible.” The agency noted, “As of the date of issuance of this report, Iran had not provided any additional clarification.”
While the latest developments are not directly linked to the Iran deal, they could trip up Europe’s diplomacy to save the pact.
The uranium traces and particles found in Iran do not prove that the regime in Tehran is pursuing a secret nuclear program, per se. Yet the discoveries raise questions about past nuclear activities that may have been hidden by Iran and could be interpreted as a sign of Iran’s untrustworthiness.
A resolution by the IAEA board of governors condemning Iran cannot be excluded, given the developments uncovered in the new reports. The board is meeting in Vienna next week, and a condemnation could further complicate attempts by the remaining signatories to the Iran deal to keep it intact. Two sources said that such a resolution could indeed be a “high risk” step in efforts to save the JCPOA.
A confidential document circulated by the US to member states on Thursday, Feb. 25, reported by Reuters and Bloomberg, made clear that Washington favored passing a resolution at next week’s board meeting that would express concern at recent reductions of nuclear facility inspections and the findings of uranium particles. The resolution indicates that Washington is willing to use the IAEA to increase pressure on Tehran.
“I don’t think a board of governors’ condemnation would be helpful at this stage, especially after Grossi’s visit to Iran,” Slavin said. She was referring to a visit by Rafael Mariano Grossi, the IAEA director-general, to Tehran last weekend to negotiate continued access for agency inspectors in Iran.
“The next step is a meeting of all parties under EU auspices which I hope will take place very soon,” Slavin added. “Then the serious work of sequencing a return to mutual compliance by Iran and the US can begin.”
Russia, as a member of the Iran deal, told some reporters in New York City on Feb. 24 that “Iran has taken a lot of steps that could be viewed as running counter to the JCPOA.” But Iran had not been “the first to strike,” Dmitry Polyanskiy, the deputy ambassador to the Russian mission to the UN, said at a briefing. “Iran was not the first to initiate these steps.”
He added, however, that Russia was “very much encouraged by results of the recent visit of IAEA Director General Mr. Grossi to Tehran. He came back with certain reassurances. That’s why we are now optimistic. We believe that the situation is quite manageable and sustainable. But nobody should take irresponsible steps.”
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Stephanie Liechtenstein is a freelance journalist based in Vienna, covering diplomacy and international organizations for more than 15 years. Her articles have appeared in Foreign Policy, the EU Observer, The Washington Post and Austrian daily newspapers such as Die Presse and Wiener Zeitung. http://www.stephanieliechtenstein.com