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IAEA: Iran has started producing uranium metal, in violation of nuke deal

Material can be used as component in nuclear weapons; European foreign ministers have warned move has ‘grave military implications’

File: The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi is seen on a giant video screen during his online broadcasted speech during the general conference of the IAEA, in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)
File: The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi is seen on a giant video screen during his online broadcasted speech during the general conference of the IAEA, in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

The UN’s atomic agency says Iran has produced a small amount of uranium metal at a facility in Isfahan, in a further violation of the 2015 nuclear deal, according to a Wednesday report.

The Wall Street Journal said Iran started making the material on Monday, citing a confidential report of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Uranium metal can be used as a component in nuclear weapons. Iran had signed up to a 15-year ban on “producing or acquiring plutonium or uranium metals or their alloys” under the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in 2015 with world powers.

Iran previously told the UN nuclear watchdog that it was advancing research on uranium metal production, saying it is aimed at providing advanced fuel for a research reactor in Tehran.

In a joint statement last month, European foreign ministers warned there was no credible civilian use for the material.

“The production of uranium metal has potentially grave military implications,” said the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany.

“We strongly urge Iran to halt this activity, and return to compliance with its JCPOA commitments without further delay if it is serious about preserving the deal,” said the ministers.

An Iranian technician walks through the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, February 3, 2007. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

The landmark 2015 deal between Iran and the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions has been largely in tatters since former US president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions.

US President Joe Biden has said he is ready to return to the deal if Iran returns to compliance. Both sides have demanded that the other act first to return to the deal, putting them at a stalemate, for the moment.

Recent Iranian breaches have included exceeding the stockpile limit on enriched uranium, enriching beyond the permitted purity level and using more advanced centrifuges than permitted under the deal.

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Monday that the country was producing almost 500 grams of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity a day, after beginning to do so earlier this year in breach of the 2015 nuclear accord.

Uranium enriched to 20% is a short technical step away from weapons-grade 90% enrichment. The foreign ministers of the European signatories to the deal — Germany, France and Britain — warned the Iranian activity “has no credible civil justification” and have called on Tehran to adhere to the accord.

A decision to begin enriching to 20% purity a decade ago nearly triggered an Israeli strike targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities. The tensions only abated with the 2015 deal, which saw Iran limit its enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Tensions have increased since the assassination in late November of Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

In the aftermath of the attack, which Iran blamed on Israel, hardliners in Tehran pledged a response and Iran’s parliament passed a controversial law calling for expanded nuclear activity and for an end to IAEA inspections.

The law also demanded Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization “operate a facility of metal uranium production” within five months.

Iran says all of its breaches of the 2015 deal’s limits are reversible, but insists that the US has to come back to the deal and lift sanctions first.

Seeking to ratchet up pressure on the Biden administration, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned on Wednesday that “the existing window is closing” for the US to adopt a “new approach” toward Iran’s nuclear program.

On Tuesday, Iran’s intelligence minister warned Tehran could push for nuclear weapons if international sanctions on Tehran remain in place. The remarks by Mahmoud Alavi marked a rare occasion that a government official said Iran could move toward nuclear weapons, which Tehran has denied seeking.

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