Blinken: Iran not a ‘responsible actor’ on nuke program after booting UN inspectors

US secretary of state says Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear program a ‘profoundly destabilizing element,’ Biden administration ‘determined that Iran never acquire a nuclear weapon’

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on during a meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan in New York, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (Bing Guan/Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on during a meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan in New York, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (Bing Guan/Pool Photo via AP)

Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program is a “profoundly destabilizing element” and its decision to bar UN nuclear inspectors from overseeing nuclear sites in the country last week suggest it is not interested in “being a responsible actor,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday.

At a press briefing, Blinken answered a question about Saudi Arabia’s demand for US cooperation in establishing a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil as part of a potential US-brokered normalization deal with Israel, with a reference to a comment made by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who said this week that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Riyadh must do the same.

“If they get one we have to get one — for security reasons, for balance of power in the Middle East,” bin Salman told Fox news in a wide-ranging interview where he also said that “every day we get closer” to Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel.

Bliken said in response to the question that “Iran’s own activities in pursuing a nuclear program are a profoundly destabilizing element and one that risks the security of countries not only in the region but well beyond it.”

The Biden administration “is determined that Iran never acquire a nuclear weapon. And as we’ve said many times, we believe that diplomacy is the most effective way to do that,” said the top US diplomat, adding that Washington has “tried to work indirectly with Iran as well as with European partners, and even Russia and China, to see if we could get a return to joint compliance with the Iran nuclear agreement, the so-called JCPOA, but Iran couldn’t or wouldn’t do that.”

“And so the problem is very clear, and the problem is Iran. That is the destabilizing element.”

An unidentified International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector disconnects the connections between the twin cascades for 20 percent uranium production at the nuclear research centre of Natanz, some 300 kilometers south of Tehran, Iran, on January 20, 2014. (KAZEM GHANE/IRNA/AFP)

Last Saturday, Iran removed a third of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s most experienced inspectors from accessing nuclear facilities in the country, a move that was blasted by the IAEA’s chief as unprecedented. Rafael Grossi, director-general of the IAEA, said the removal would complicate inspection of Iran’s nuclear program.

Blinken said the inspectors were “critical to doing the work of the IAEA to… ensure that Iran is being consistent with whatever obligations it has…and having a clear sense of what they’re actually doing. So that is not evidence of an Iran that’s interested in actually being a responsible actor when it comes to its nuclear program, and that is the destabilizing element.”

Iran’s foreign ministry linked the move to what it said was an attempt by the United States and three European countries to misuse the body “for their own political purposes.” The ministry appeared to be referring to Britain, France and Germany, which said Thursday they would maintain sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“Iran had previously warned about the consequences of such political abuses, including the attempt to politicize the atmosphere of the agency,” foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said.

Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaks during the IAEA’s Board of Governors meeting at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna, September 11, 2023. (Alex Halada/AFP)

Earlier this month, the UN nuclear watchdog said in confidential reports seen by AFP that Iran had made “no progress” on several outstanding nuclear issues, including installing more cameras to monitor their nuclear program.

Tehran in March vowed to reactivate surveillance devices that were disconnected in June 2022 amid deteriorating relations with the West.

In a separate report, also seen by AFP, the IAEA said Iran’s total stockpile of enriched uranium was lower than in May but still more than 18 times the limit set in a 2015 accord between Tehran and world powers.

Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was estimated at 3,795.5 kilograms (8,367.7 pounds) as of August 19, down by 949 kilograms from May, the agency said.

The limit in the 2015 deal was set at 202.8 kilograms.

The stockpile of uranium enriched up to 60 percent is now at 121.6 kilos, up from 114.1 kilos in May.

Iran also has 535.8 kilos of uranium enriched up to 20 percent, up from 470.9 kilos in the last May report.

This photo released November 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in Natanz uranium enrichment facility near Natanz, Iran (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

Britain, the United States, France and Germany on Wednesday told the IAEA that Iran must clarify questions over its nuclear program, including concerns over the monitoring cameras, and the presence of uranium particles enriched to near weapons-grade level.

In 2015, major world powers reached a deal with Iran, under which Tehran would curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions.

That started to unravel in 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the pact and reimposed sanctions. Tehran in turn stepped up its nuclear program.

Efforts to revive the deal have been fruitless so far.

Iran has always denied any ambition to develop a nuclear weapons capability, insisting its activities are entirely peaceful.

Agencies contributed to this report

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