In latest escalation, Iran briefly detains international nuclear inspector

As 2015 atomic deal crumbles, officials say Islamic Republic harassed IAEA official at Natanz site

IAEA inspectors at Iran's nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane/File)
IAEA inspectors at Iran's nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane/File)

Iran detained an inspector from the international nuclear watchdog agency that is charged with keeping tabs on its nuclear program.

According to the Reuters news agency, the female inspector, who has not been named, was briefly held by Iranian officials at the Natanz nuclear facility and had her passport and travel documents confiscated, in an incident International Atomic Energy Agency officials called an attempt at harassment.

The IAEA maintains over 130 inspectors in Iran to keep track of the country’s nuclear program under a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that has unraveled over the past year, since the US withdrawal from the deal in May 2018.

Citing three unnamed IAEA diplomats, Reuters said Iran’s behavior was a “first of its kind” and a result of growing friction with the West.

The detention will be raised at a rush meeting of the IAEA’s Board of Governors called for Thursday at the organization’s Vienna headquarters.

Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of capital Tehran, Iran, April, 9, 2007. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/ AP/File)

The meeting will discuss “two safeguards matters,” the agenda reads, without specifying.

A Western official told Reuters those include the detention of the inspector, as “the agency wants to show how seriously they are taking this. It is a potentially damaging precedent.”

“There is a real concern that it will harm how [the agency] carries out their inspections in the future,” a European counterpart was quoted as saying.

The second agenda item on Thursday, the agency said in the exclusive report, was Iran’s “less than full cooperation” with the watchdog over the discovery of uranium traces at the site identified by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year at a secret nuclear warehouse.

The report comes the same day that Iranian state television announced that uranium hexafluoride gas was injected into advanced centrifuges at the Fordo nuclear facility, a day after Iran announced it would make the move. It said inspectors from the IAEA were on hand.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani gives a press conference in Tehran, Iran, October 14, 2019. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

As part of the 2015 accord limiting its nuclear program, Iran was barred from enriching uranium at Fordo, which was converted to a research center.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who announced the move Tuesday, confirmed on Twitter that enrichment activity had restarted at Fordo, converting the facility back into an active enrichment center.

A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas.

Since the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal last year and imposed tough sanctions, Iran has taken a number of steps to curb its adherence to the international agreement in a bid to receive economic relief from the European signatories to the pact.

“Iran has taken its fourth step to decrease its nuclear commitments to the deal in reaction to the increased US pressure and inactivity of European parties to the deal to save it,” Iran’s state TV said.

The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flutters in front of the IAEA building in Vienna on July 10, 2019. (Alex Halada/AFP)

Reacting to Iran’s announcement Tuesday it would resume work at Fordo, the US accused Tehran of “nuclear extortion,” while Netanyahu repeated his vow to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons.

European Union spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic described the bloc as “concerned” by Iran’s decision.

US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus decried the move, saying Iran originally built Fordo as a “fortified, underground bunker in which to conduct secret uranium enrichment work.”

“Iran has no credible reason to expand its uranium enrichment program, at the Fordo facility or elsewhere, other than a clear attempt at nuclear extortion that will only deepen its political and economic isolation,” Ortagus said.

Fordo sits some 25 kilometers (15 miles) northeast of Qom, a Shiite holy city and the site of a former ammunition dump. Shielded by the mountains, the facility also is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead US officials to suspect it had a military purpose.

A satellite image from September 15, 2017, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)

Iran acknowledged Fordo’s existence in 2009 amid a major pressure campaign by Western powers over Tehran’s nuclear program. The West feared Iran could use its program to build a nuclear weapon; Iran insists the program is for peaceful purposes.

The centrifuges at Fordo are first-generation IR-1s. The nuclear deal allows those at Fordo to spin without uranium gas, while allowing up to 5,060 IR-1s at the Natanz facility to enrich uranium.

As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. At the 4.5% level, it is enough to help power Iran’s Bushehr reactor, the country’s only nuclear power plant. Prior to the atomic deal, Iran reached up to 20%.

Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilograms (11 pounds), said Ali Akbar Salehi, Head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. Iran now holds over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, Salehi said. The deal had limited Iran to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).

Experts described Iran’s announcement Tuesday as a major tear to the unraveling nuclear deal.

Centrifuges enriching uranium (Photo credit: US Department of Energy/ Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative. Centrifuges enriching uranium. (Public Domain/US Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons)

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