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Iran’s nuclear chief admits removing damaged IAEA monitoring cameras

Mohammad Eslami also says he’s heading to Vienna next week for talks with UN nuclear watchdog

The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami (center) speaks during a joint press briefing with Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi (second right) in Tehran, Iran, on Sunday, September 12, 2021. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami (center) speaks during a joint press briefing with Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi (second right) in Tehran, Iran, on Sunday, September 12, 2021. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

TEHRAN (AP) — Iran acknowledged on Wednesday that it had removed several surveillance cameras installed by United Nations nuclear inspectors at a centrifuge assembly site that came under a mysterious attack earlier this year.

The chief of the country’s nuclear program, Mohammad Eslami, sought to portray the removal of cameras as Tehran’s response to world powers reneging on their commitments under the tattered 2015 nuclear deal.

“The parties did not implement their commitments so there was no necessity for the cameras’ existence,” Eslami said after a meeting with lawmakers — remarks apparently aimed at his own domestic audience under the country’s new hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi.

Eslami’s comments come days after a confidential International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that revealed that the nuclear watchdog found one surveillance camera to be destroyed and a second severely damaged after their removal from the centrifuge manufacturing site in Karaj, a city about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Tehran.

In June, Iran accused Israel of mounting a sabotage attack on the site, which makes components for machines used to enrich uranium. Without disclosing details of the assault, Iranian authorities acknowledged the strike had damaged the building.

Addressing swirling questions about the agency’s broken surveillance cameras, Eslami said on Wednesday that they were damaged during recent “terrorist operations,” without elaborating.

The attack on Karaj was just the latest in a series of suspected assaults targeting Iran’s nuclear program that have heightened regional hostilities in recent months, as world powers attempt to salvage the now-collapsed nuclear deal. Israel is widely believed to have carried out the sabotage, though it has not claimed responsibility.

Tensions eased slightly in the contest over IAEA surveillance cameras at Iran’s sensitive nuclear sites earlier this week, when Iran conditionally agreed to allow international inspectors to install new memory cards into surveillance cameras at its atomic facilities to continue filming. This was conditioned on progress in talks on the 2015 nuclear deal.

Tehran holds all recordings at its sites as negotiations over the United States and Iran returning to the landmark deal remain stalled in Vienna. As Tehran tries to ramp up pressure on the West to grant sanctions relief, the country is now enriching uranium to its closest-ever levels to weapons-grade purity as its stockpile continues to grow. It has quadrupled its stockpile of 60 percent-enriched uranium, to some 10 kilos, since May, the IAEA said.

“What Iran has gained in the nuclear field is based on domestic research and development, and nobody can stop this,” Eslami said, adding that he will travel to Vienna next week for a meeting with the IAEA. “We should not allow ourselves to be accused of secrecy by the world.”

In a similar statement pitched to the Iranian domestic audience, the country’s envoy to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, also struck a harsh tone against the nuclear watchdog.

The IAEA is not fulfilling “its duties and responsibilities with regard to the terrorist sabotage of peaceful facilities of its members,” Gharibabadi said, warning that “as long as the agency does not address the controversies, problems will continue.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz speak in the Knesset on September 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday that world powers must not allow Iran to continue to drag out its dealings without setting clear deadlines and red lines.

“I hereby call on world powers not to fall captive to the sleight of hand of the Iranians, which will lead to further concessions,” he said. “Investigating the [nuclear] sites must not be given up, and the most important message that needs to be sent is that a time must be set. They are dragging it out, but a clear and sharp deadline must be set that says ‘until here.’”

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that he was prepared to accept a scenario in which the US negotiates a fresh nuclear deal with Iran, in a rare comment from a senior government official not rejecting such a multilateral accord out of hand.

“The current US approach of putting the Iran nuclear program back in a box, I’d accept that,” Gantz told Foreign Policy in an interview published on Tuesday, employing rhetoric used by the Biden administration to describe the goal of the 2015 nuclear deal.

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