Ahmed Seif EL-Din
The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed on Tuesday that its inspectors had discovered traces of near weapons-grade nuclear material at Iran’s underground Fordow facility. However, the agency stated that Iran was still enriching the less dangerous level of 60% at the site. The IAEA reported that it found traces of near weapons-grade 84% during an inspection on January 22. Iran has been producing 60% enriched uranium for almost two years.
The production of the 60% material, which no other non-nuclear weapons state is producing, can be quickly turned into weapons-grade material, which is around 90% enriched. The IAEA said Iran claimed in a letter that what the agency found at Fordow was the result of “unintended fluctuations in enrichment levels.” However, discussions between the agency and Iran to clarify the matter are ongoing.
If Iran deliberately starts producing weapons-grade material, it could lead to a crisis over the country’s nuclear activities. European diplomats have said that would be the trigger for them to move to formally kill a 2015 nuclear agreement. The agreement lifted most international sanctions on Tehran in exchange for strict but temporary limits on Iran’s nuclear work. Western officials also say it could prod Israel to pursue a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli officials haven’t been public about their plans.
Iran has greatly expanded its nuclear work since 2019, a year after the Trump administration took the US out of the 2015 nuclear accord. President Biden’s efforts to revive the pact so far have failed. Under the 2015 agreement, Iran was only supposed to enrich uranium up to 3.67% for 15 years.
The IAEA reported this undeclared work as a breach of Iran’s commitment to its member states on February 1. Diplomats involved in the oversight of Iran’s nuclear activities say Tehran might also have experimented with pathways to producing weapons-grade material at the same time as they changed the configuration of the cascades.
In its report, the IAEA said Iran’s stockpile of 60% highly enriched uranium had increased by over a third in the last three months, the biggest jump by far. That is because since November, the material has been produced at Fordow as well as Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility.
The agency also flagged a new concern in its report, saying Tehran had acknowledged a discrepancy in the amount of natural uranium had reported it dissolved at Iran’s Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan. The IAEA had long known about the presence of a uranium metal disc in Iran, which western officials think was connected to Iran’s past nuclear weapons work. Tehran has always said its nuclear work was purely for peaceful purposes.
The IAEA Board of Governors is scheduled to meet next week, with Iran possibly facing censure from the US and European countries over its nuclear activities. Tehran has in the past stepped up its nuclear work in response to being rebuked by the agency board.
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