Iran rushing ahead with uranium enrichment, UN nuclear watchdog says in report

IAEA update finds installation of advanced centrifuges now complete at Natanz underground plant; Tehran says it plans to add even more of devices banned under 2015 deal

Various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, on April 17, 2021. (Screenshot/Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting-IRIB, via AP)
Various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, on April 17, 2021. (Screenshot/Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting-IRIB, via AP)

Iran has increased the number of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges it fields and intends to add more of the devices, quickly growing its enrichment capabilities, according to a confidential International Atomic Energy Agency report seen by Reuters on Monday.

The newly installed devices, located at the underground Natanz enrichment plant, are banned under Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Efforts to salvage the tattered agreement — which eased international sanctions in exchange for a drastic limitation of Iran’s nuclear activities — have been ongoing since then-US president Donald Trump withdrew America from it in 2018.

The US reimposed biting sanctions, provoking Tehran into stepping back from its nuclear commitments, greatly increasing its stock of enriched uranium and turning off monitoring cameras operated by the IAEA, the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

The new report was an update following a September review of a visit by IAEA inspectors to the site at the end of August. Since then, Iran has completed the installation of seven cascades of centrifuges, the bulletin said.

The six IR-2m machines and one IR-4 device are not yet enriching uranium, the IAEA found.

In addition, Iran has told the IAEA it intends to add three more cascades of IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz. There are already 12 such cascades at the plant, each consisting of several combined centrifuges enriching uranium. Work has already started on two of the cascades.

In another development, the report said that while all the centrifuges at Natanz are producing uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas enriched to five percent, they are now being fed with natural UF6. In September the IAEA said the devices were being loaded with UF6 enriched to up to 2%. The recent report did not explain why the change was made, Reuters said.

Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks at the 66th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, September 26, 2022. (Theresa Wey/AP)

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said last week he had met with the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, amid stalled attempts to revive the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

After months of friction, the two sides met face-to-face in Vienna.

“Dialogue has restarted with Iran on clarification of outstanding safeguards issues,” Grossi tweeted on September 26.

He said he had met with Mohammad Eslami — Iran’s nuclear chief — on the sidelines of the IAEA’s annual conference, and posted a picture of the two men shaking hands.

The UN watchdog has been pressing Iran to give answers on the presence of nuclear material at three undeclared sites, a key sticking point that led to a resolution criticizing Iran being passed at a June meeting of the IAEA’s board of governors.

Ahead of the meeting, Grossi told Iran that his agency would not halt the probe into the undeclared sites, signaling that the issue would continue to block efforts between world powers and Iran to reenter the nuclear deal.

Eslami also signaled Iran was unwilling to compromise on the issue, saying the investigation relied on “false, baseless information.”

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