Iran starts enriching uranium at Fordo plant during nuclear talks, in further breach

IAEA says Tehran began process of enriching to up to 20% with advanced centrifuges at site dug into mountain, as negotiators fear it’s creating facts on the ground

A satellite image from April 2, 2016, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)
A satellite image from April 2, 2016, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)

Iran has begun the process of enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordo plant, the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Wednesday, in what would be a further violation of the multilateral nuclear accord that world powers are rushing to salvage.

The UN’s nuclear watchdog reported that Tehran started the process of enriching uranium at Fordo, 135 kilometers from Tehran, to up to 20 percent purity with a cluster of 166 advanced IR-6 machines.

The announcement from the IAEA came three days after negotiators from Iran and the US reconvened in Vienna for indirect talks aimed at reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action after a five-month recess prompted by the election of hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi.

Iran has been escalating in its violations of the deal — which bars any enrichment at Fordo — since former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and began imposing significant sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Until now, Iran had been enriching uranium at Fordo, but mainly with less-advanced IR-1 machines, the report said, adding that Western negotiators fear that Tehran is seeking to create facts on the ground as talks in Vienna restart.

Iran has another 94 IR-6 machines installed at Fordo, though it has not yet began operating them, the IAEA said.

Technicians work at the Iranian Arak heavy water reactor, 150 miles southwest of the capital Tehran, on December 23, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

According to an IAEA report seen by Reuters, the nuclear watchdog plans to expand its inspections at Fordo — which Iran has dug into a mountain, ostensibly to protect from an incoming attack — as a result of the steps taken by Iran.

“The Agency has decided and Iran has agreed to increase the frequency of verification activities at FFEP and will continue consultations with Iran on practical arrangements to facilitate implementation of these activities,” the report stated.

On the second day of restarted talks in Vienna this week, European negotiators said they will assess the “seriousness” of the Iranian position over the next few days to decide whether to continue with recently resumed talks about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.

Without wanting to set “an artificial deadline,” one of the unnamed European diplomats at the talks said, “we don’t have the luxury to spend time on niceties.”

“If they don’t show that they are serious about this work, then we’ll have a problem,” diplomats from the E3 nations of Britain, France and Germany said. “The next 48 hours will be very important.”

In this round of talks, “we have 70 percent to 80% of the work done, but some of the most difficult issues are what remains,” the diplomats said.

The diplomats said that the issue of Iran’s centrifuges remains an unresolved issue.

Iran struck a hard line after the first day of talks on Tuesday, suggesting everything discussed in previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated, in direct contradiction of comments made Monday by EU chief negotiator Enrique Mora.

Speaking to Iranian state television, Ali Bagheri, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, referred to everything discussed thus far as merely a “draft.” It remained unclear whether that represented an opening gambit by Iran’s new president or signaled serious trouble for those hoping to restore the deal.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri arrives at the Coburg Palais, the venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting, in Vienna on November 29, 2021. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP)

Iran maintains its atomic program is peaceful. However, US intelligence agencies and international inspectors say Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program up until 2003. Nonproliferation experts fear any brinkmanship could push Tehran toward even more extreme measures to try to force the West to lift sanctions.

Making matters more difficult, United Nations nuclear inspectors remain unable to fully monitor Iran’s program after Tehran limited their access. A trip to Iran last week by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, failed to make any progress on that issue.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on a Tuesday visit to Paris urged French President Emmanuel Macron to strengthen sanctions against Iran and said “a credible military threat must be exercised.”

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