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Iran said to restrict UN inspectors’ access to Natanz nuclear site after attack

Tehran reportedly citing security concerns in wake of alleged Israeli strike in April; ‘They are provoking us,’ a Western diplomat says

The Natanz uranium enrichment facility buildings are pictured some 200 miles (322 km) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, on March 30, 2005. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
The Natanz uranium enrichment facility buildings are pictured some 200 miles (322 km) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, on March 30, 2005. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran has reportedly restricted the access of United Nations inspectors to its uranium enrichment facilities at the Natanz nuclear site, citing security concerns after what it alleges was an Israeli attack on the facility in April.

Diplomats told Reuters Thursday that the situation has been going on for weeks but that a resolution may be near.

“They are provoking us,” a Western diplomat said.

Another insisted that this has “had very little impact on the agency’s ability to carry out verification.”

Iranian officials were not immediately available for comment. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declined to comment, citing its policy of not commenting on inspection matters.

Iran began limiting the access of UN atomic watchdog inspectors to its nuclear sites earlier this year, as part of a pressure campaign on the West over its tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Tehran was trying to push European powers to provide relief from oil and banking sanctions imposed three years ago, when then-president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the landmark accord. As part of that effort, Iran increasingly abandoned the accord’s enrichment limits and is now enriching uranium to 60 percent purity, its highest ever levels, although still short of weapons-grade 90%.

In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, Iran. (IRIB via AP)

On April 10, Iran announced that its Natanz facility had started up far more advanced IR-6 and IR-5 centrifuges that enrich uranium more quickly, in a new breach of its undertakings under the 2015 nuclear agreement. It also said it had began mechanical tests on an even faster nuclear centrifuge: The output of Iran’s IR-9 centrifuge, which, when operational, would be 50 times quicker than the first Iranian centrifuge, the IR-1. Iran’s nuclear program is also developing IR-8 centrifuges.

Early the next morning, the site was hit in a blast that was declared by Iran to be Israeli sabotage. The explosion was said to have caused considerable damage to the plant, including its various uranium-enriching centrifuges.

In response to the attack, Iran said it began enriching a small amount of uranium up to 60% purity at the site.

On Monday, Iran’s foreign ministry said that it had not yet made a decision about whether to extend an agreement with the IAEA over access to surveillance footage at its nuclear sites.

The remarks by Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh came after a three-month deal between Tehran and international nuclear inspectors to preserve video data at the country’s atomic installations expired last week, following a one-month extension.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh gestures during a press conference in Tehran, on February 22, 2021. (Atta Kenare / AFP)

“No decision, either negative or positive, has been made,” Khatibzadeh told reporters. “Neither the continuation of the deal nor the erasure [of data]. We are in the previous position for the time being.”

In order to limit diplomatic damage amid ongoing negotiations in Vienna to resurrect the nuclear deal, Iran and the IAEA reached a last-minute February agreement over Tehran’s newly imposed limits on inspections. Iran promised to save the video data for later access — but only for three months, after which authorities threatened to delete the tapes.

The move to erase the surveillance footage would steeply escalate tensions, complicating diplomatic efforts to find a path for America to lift sanctions and for Iran to reimpose curbs on its nuclear program.

Nuclear deal negotiations have gathered urgency amid the presidential election victory of Iran’s hardline judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi. Although known for his hostility to the West, Raisi has committed to securing sanctions relief through a return to the nuclear deal.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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