Iran denies ‘slanderous’ reports it enriched uranium above 60 percent

WSJ reports particles of near-weapons-grade uranium could have been accidentally produced during recent trials in speeding up the enrichment process at Fordo plant

Iran's domestically built centrifuges are displayed in an exhibition of the country's nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran, February 8, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
Iran's domestically built centrifuges are displayed in an exhibition of the country's nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran, February 8, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

TEHRAN,  Iran — Iran on Monday denied reports that it has enriched uranium up to 84 percent, just below the 90 percent needed to produce an atomic bomb, state media reported.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Sunday evening that it was in discussions with Tehran after Bloomberg News reported that the watchdog’s inspectors in Iran last week found uranium enriched to 84 percent purity.

The spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Behruz Kamalvandi, on Monday described the report as “slander” and a “distortion of the facts,” according to state news agency IRNA.

“The presence of a particle or particles of uranium above 60 percent in the enrichment process does not mean enrichment above 60 percent,” he added.

A diplomat outside Iran meanwhile confirmed to AFP the figures reported in the Bloomberg report, saying: “The percentage is correct.”

The IAEA is “giving Iran the opportunity to explain because it’s apparently possible that there can be so-called ‘spikes’ of higher levels of enrichment,” the diplomat said.

Iran was last known to have enriched uranium up to 60 percent. Uranium enriched up to 90 percent purity is considered nuclear weapons-grade.

This December 11, 2020, satellite photo by Maxar Technologies shows construction at Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility. Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the US over its atomic program. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

The Wall Street Journal reported late Sunday that diplomats believe that the 84% samples come from work Iran had recently done at the heavily fortified Fordo plant without informing the IAEA.

At the time, two Western diplomats told the WSJ they believed that work involved speeding up the production of highly enriched uranium and experimenting with ways they could produce weapons-grade material.

Iran told the IAEA it hadn’t intended to carry out the work.

Iran has in the past undershot or overshot the purity of enriched uranium it intended to produce but only by a few percentage points, the WSJ said, noting that there have been no reported cases where Iran accidentally jumped from 60% to 84%.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani said on Monday that his country is “committed” to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and its safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

He warned against the politicization of the role of the UN nuclear watchdog, saying it “distorts its position.”

“The agency should act within the framework of specialized tasks,” he added.

The report of the 84-percent enrichment comes amid stalled negotiations to revive the 2015 deal over Iran’s nuclear program.

The accord promised Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon — something Tehran has always denied seeking.

But the US unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran, prompting it to begin walking back on its commitments under the accord.

Negotiations between world powers to return to the deal started in 2021 but have been in a deep freeze since last year.

During a telephone call Sunday evening with European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, Iran’s top diplomat Hossein Amir-Abdollahian indicated that a visit by IAEA chief Rafael Grossi to Tehran was still planned.

“If the agency acts with a technical objective and not a political one, it will be possible to agree on a framework to resolve” the nuclear dispute, Amir-Abdollahian said.

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