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Iran ducking questions about uranium at undeclared sites, UN watchdog says

IAEA head ‘concerned’ that Tehran refusing to allow clarify presence of uranium at three sites; separate report says uranium stockpile at 16 times allowed limit

President Hassan Rouhani, second right, is shown new centrifuges and listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran's new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
President Hassan Rouhani, second right, is shown new centrifuges and listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran's new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The UN nuclear watchdog Monday voiced concern that Iran had not clarified queries over possible undeclared nuclear activity after trace amounts of uranium were detected at three sites.

The IAEA said in the report that the results of its inspection work have established “a clear indication that nuclear material and/or equipment contaminated by nuclear material has been present” at three undeclared locations, with most of the activity in question dating back to the early 2000s.

The agency also said Iran has failed to answer questions regarding a fourth site where natural uranium may have been present between 2002 and 2003 in the form of a metal disc.

The report said IAEA director general Rafael Grossi was “concerned that the technical discussions between the agency and Iran have not yielded the expected results,” referring to exchanges on the sites where undeclared nuclear activity may have occurred.

Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), speaks during a press conference at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria on May 24, 2021. (ALEX HALADA/AFP)

“The lack of progress in clarifying the Agency’s questions concerning the correctness and completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations seriously affects the ability of the Agency to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” the report read.

The conclusion comes despite a “proactive and focused effort” launched by the IAEA in April “to break the impasse” over the sites.

In February, the atomic watchdog said it was “deeply concerned” by the possible presence of nuclear material at an undeclared site that had been flagged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “secret atomic warehouse.”

“The agency is deeply concerned that undeclared nuclear material may have been present at this undeclared location and that such nuclear material remains unreported by Iran under its safeguards agreement,” a report at the time said.

The site in question is in the Turquzabad district of Tehran, previously identified by Israel as an alleged site of secret atomic activity.

Illustrative: Iran’s alleged atomic warehouse in Turquzabad, Tehran. (YouTube screenshot)

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited the site several times after Netanyahu identified it in a 2018 address to the UN General Assembly, took soil samples, and later definitively concluded that there were “traces of radioactive material” there, Israel’s Channel 13 news reported in 2019.

Sources told AFP in February that there is no indication the site has been used for processing uranium, but that it could have been used for storing it as late as the end of 2018.

In a separate report, the IAEA said Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is around 16 times the limit laid down in the 2015 deal with world powers.

However, the rate of production of enriched uranium has slowed since the last quarterly report from the IAEA in February, possibly as a result of sabotage which Iran has blamed on Israel.

In April, Iran said a “small explosion” had hit its Natanz nuclear facility.

This photo released July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire, at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

The reports came as the IAEA has sought to negotiate with Iran to resume some inspections cut off in February.

Last week the IAEA said it had extended a temporary agreement with Iran until June 24 which has allowed many inspections to continue.

Abbas Araghchi, political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, leaves the Grand Hotel Wien after the closed-door nuclear talks by diplomats of the UK, EU, China, Russia and Iran in Vienna on May 25, 2021. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

The latest reports will be presented to the IAEA’s board of governors next week.

Iran and world powers are engaged in talks in Vienna to rescue the 2015 nuclear deal after former US president Donald Trump walked away from it in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran.

Trump’s successor Joe Biden has signaled his willingness to revive the plan.

For this to happen, the US would need to return to the accord and lift the sanctions reinstated by Trump while Tehran would have to re-commit to full compliance with nuclear obligations it progressively withdrew from since 2019.

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