The UN’s atomic watchdog says its inspectors have confirmed that Iran has started enriching uranium up to 20 percent purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels. It’s the latest in a string of violations of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in a confidential document distributed to member countries and seen by The Associated Press Tuesday that as of February 16, Iran had added 17.6 kilograms (38.8 pounds) of uranium enriched to 20 percent to its stockpile.
Overall, it increased its stockpile of enriched uranium to 2,967.8 kilograms (6,542.9 pounds), up from 2,442.9 kilograms (5,385.7 pounds) reported on November 2.
The nuclear deal signed in 2015 with the United States, Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, allows Iran only to keep a stockpile of 202.8 kilograms (447 pounds). It also allows enrichment only up to 3.67 percent.
Iran officially started restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities, state TV reported Tuesday, a bid to pressure European countries and U.S. President Joe Biden's administration to lift crippling economic sanctions and restore the 2015 nuclear deal.
World powers slammed the restrictions as a “dangerous” move.
The state TV report gave little detail beyond confirming that Iran had made good on its threat to reduce cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
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Iran's move to limit international inspections underscores the daunting task facing Biden as he seeks to reverse former President Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S. unilaterally out of the deal in 2018, leaving Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia struggling to keep it alive.
The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was the most significant pact between Iran and major world powers since its 1979 Islamic revolution, and Germany, France and Britain stressed their commitment Tuesday to preserving it, urging Iran to “stop and reverse all measures that reduce transparency.”
“The E3 are united in underlining the dangerous nature of this decision,” the European powers said in a statement. “It will significantly constrain the IAEA's access to sites and to safeguards-relevant information.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said a new law had gone into effect Tuesday morning, under which Iran will no longer share surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities with the UN agency.
“We never gave them live video, but (recordings) were given daily and weekly,” Zarif said of the IAEA's access to information recorded by camera monitors. “The tape recording of our (nuclear) program will be kept in Iran.”
The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Tehran’s civilian nuclear agency, has promised to preserve the tapes for three months, then hand them over to the IAEA — but only if granted sanctions relief. Otherwise, Iran has vowed to erase the tapes, narrowing the window for a diplomatic breakthrough.
Since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA, Iran has gradually been violating its restrictions to put pressures on the remaining nations to come up with economic incentives to offset crippling American sanctions.
Among other things, the country has started enriching uranium up to 20 percent purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels, and well above the purity allowed under the JCPOA. It has also been spinning advanced centrifuges, producing uranium metal and stockpiling more uranium than allowed.
Zarif stressed in a tweet Tuesday that Iran's new limits on nuclear inspections and other violations of the pact are reversible, insisting that the U.S. move first to revive the deal.
In a show of defiance, Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei outlined further developments in Iran's nuclear program on Tuesday. Over the last three weeks, he told reporters, Iran has installed and started feeding gas into an additional 148 high-tech IR2-m centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear enrichment facility and its fortified nuclear complex at Fordo, bringing the total number of centrifuges to up to 492. Another set of 492 centrifuges will be installed in the coming month, he said.
He added that Iran has installed two cascades of even more advanced centrifuges at its nuclear enrichment facilities, but did not specify where.
On Monday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also signaled Iran would refuse to capitulate to U.S. pressure over its nuclear program. Khamenei said that Iran could enrich uranium up to 60 percent purity if necessary, but stressed the country forbids nuclear weapons. Tehran has long insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, such as power generation and medical research.
The Biden administration has said it’s ready to join talks with Iran and world powers to discuss a return to the deal. Zarif responded to the overture cautiously on Tuesday, saying that Iran is “assessing the idea of an unofficial meeting" with the parties to the accord “in which America is invited as a non-member.”
In further diplomatic moves, the new U.S. administration rescinded the Trump-imposed UN sanctions and eased restrictions on the domestic travel of Iranian diplomats posted to the United Nations.
Rabiei praised the steps on Tuesday but threw cold water on hopes for a swift revival of the deal.
“While we consider this as putting America on a constructive path, we see (the steps) as extremely insufficient," he said.
Before Iran implemented its new restrictions on IAEA inspections, the agency's Director-General Rafael Grossi negotiated a temporary deal during an emergency weekend trip to Tehran allowing him to keep the same number of inspectors on the ground.
Still, he conceded there would be “less access” and urged a political solution during the three-month window of opportunity opened by the “technical understanding” he reached with Iran.