Defense Minister Gallant warns 'dangers intensifying'

After IAEA closes uranium probes, Israel says it bowed to Iranian pressure

Foreign Ministry claims credibility of IAEA ‘severely damaged’ by ‘impossible’ explanation for trace uranium at suspect site; PM warns Israel will do what it must to stop bomb

International Atomic Energy Organization, IAEA, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, center, and head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Mohammad Eslami arrive for a joint press conference  in Tehran, Saturday, March 4, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
International Atomic Energy Organization, IAEA, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, center, and head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Mohammad Eslami arrive for a joint press conference in Tehran, Saturday, March 4, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Israel fumed Thursday over a decision by the UN’s atomic watchdog to close an investigation into an Iranian site where secret nuclear activity was suspected, accusing the monitor of caving to pressure from Tehran.

The move by the International Atomic Energy Agency to conclude the probe into traces of man-made uranium found at Marivan, some 525 kilometers (325 miles) southeast of Tehran, “could have extremely dangerous consequences,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat said.

“The explanations provided by Iran for the presence of nuclear material at the site are not reliable or technically possible,” Haiat said. “Iran continues to lie to the IAEA and deceive the international community.”

On Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that the IAEA said Iran had satisfied concerns over suspected secret nuclear activity at Marivan and the underground Fordo facility.

The confidential quarterly report by the Vienna-based body, distributed to member states, said inspectors no longer had questions about Marivan after determining that “another member state” operated a mine in the area in the 1960s and 1970s.

Iran had argued the uranium traces could have come from “laboratory instruments and equipment” used by miners at the site. The IAEA called the answer “a possible explanation.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealing what he says is a nuclear weapons development site in Abadeh, Iran, at the Prime Ministers Office, on September 9, 2019. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Analysts had repeatedly linked Marivan to Iran’s secret military nuclear program and accused Iran of conducting high-explosive tests there in the early 2000s. In 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exposed the site, claiming it was a secret nuclear facility.

Haiat accused IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi of “yielding” to Iranian political pressure, which he called “very disappointing.” He warned that the watchdog had “severely damage[d]” its credibility.

“The information in the file implicitly points to… blatant Iranian violations of the inspection agreements,” he said.

A separate investigation into uranium particles found to be enriched to 83.7% at Iran’s underground Fordo facility, just a short step from weapons-grade material, was also closed by the IAEA, which accepted Tehran’s explanation that the fluctuations were caused by an enrichment byproduct.

International Atomic Energy Organization, IAEA, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, center, arrives for a meeting with head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Mohammad Eslami as he is welcomed by the spokesman for Iran’s atomic agency Behrouz Kamalvandi, second left, in Tehran, March 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

There was no comment from the Foreign Ministry on the closure of the Fordo investigation.

Tensions between Iran and the West have escalated over its nuclear program. Tehran also has faced mass protests recently and anger from the West over it arming Russia with bomb-carrying drones now targeting Ukraine.

The closure of the probes slightly eases pressure on Tehran, which has been escalating its nuclear program since 2018, when the US unilaterally withdrew from a landmark pact capping enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief.

Talks to revive the deal fell apart last year, but recent reports have indicated steps to possibly renew the diplomatic initiative, sparking Israeli concerns that a new deal could legitimize Iran’s nuclear activity and erase international support for potential military action.

This November 1, 2019, satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the Fordo nuclear facility, just north of the holy city of Qom in Iran. The resumption of activity at Fordo pushes the risk of a wider confrontation involving Iran even higher after months of attacks across the Middle East that the US blames on Tehran. (Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies via AP)

Israel continued to warn of such action Thursday, with both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant adding to fevered saber-rattling already taking place between the countries.

“I hear all the reports about Iran, so I have a sharp, clear message for Iran and the international community: Israel will do what it must to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb,” Netanyahu said in a short video message.

Speaking at an Israel Defense Forces officer promotion ceremony, Gallant responded to what his office called “recent developments regarding the Iranian nuclear issue.”

“The dangers facing the State of Israel are intensifying and we may be required to fulfill our duty in order to protect the integrity of Israel and especially the future of the Jewish people,” Gallant said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks at a ceremony at the IDF’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, June 1, 2023. (Nicole Laskavi/Defense Ministry)

“The tasks are heavy and the challenges are great. The reality in which we find ourselves is complex,” he added.

A second IAEA report Wednesday found that Iran has significantly increased its stockpile of enriched uranium in recent months to more than 23 times the limit set out in the 2015 accord between Tehran and world powers.

Iran’s nuclear deal limited Tehran’s uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms (661 pounds) and enrichment to 3.67% — enough to fuel a nuclear power plant, but Iran has been producing uranium enriched to 60% purity — a level for which nonproliferation experts already say Tehran has no civilian use.

The IAEA report estimated that as of May 13, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was at 4,744.5 kilograms (10,460 pounds). Of that, 114.1 kilograms (251 pounds) was enriched up to 60% purity.

Enrichment levels of around 90 percent are required for use in a nuclear weapon — a short technical step from their current level.

While IAEA head Grossi has warned that Iran now has enough uranium to produce “several” bombs, months more would likely be needed to build a weapon and potentially miniaturize it to put it on a missile. The US intelligence community has maintained its assessment that Iran isn’t pursuing an atomic bomb.

Iran has always denied any ambition to develop a nuclear weapons capability, insisting its activities are entirely peaceful.

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