'No country without warlike projects enriches at that level'

UN nuclear chief: Iran’s program advancing at a gallop, we have little visibility

Rafael Grossi says project ‘has grown enormously, far beyond what it was in 2015,’ as Tehran creates new difficulties and negotiations remains stalled

Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks during a press conference in Vienna, Austria, on December 17, 2021. (Michael Gruber/AP)
Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks during a press conference in Vienna, Austria, on December 17, 2021. (Michael Gruber/AP)

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned Friday that Iran’s nuclear program “is advancing at a gallop and we have very little visibility.”

Speaking to Spain’s El Pais, Rafael Grossi said Tehran’s nuclear project “has grown enormously, far beyond what it was in 2015. It is growth that is not only quantitative but qualitative, also with the levels of enrichment.”

The head of the nuclear watchdog added: “This does not imply that Iran is making a nuclear weapon, but no country that does not have warlike projects enriches at that level, at 60 percent.”

Amid stalled nuclear negotiations in Vienna for a return to the defunct 2015 nuclear deal, Iran has ramped up its uranium enrichment with new, more advanced centrifuges.

The IAEA reported last month that Iran has 43 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60% purity — a short step to 90%. Nonproliferation experts warn that’s enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon if Iran chose to pursue it.

Earlier this week Kamal Kharazi, head of Iran’s strategic council of foreign relations, told Al Jazeera Iran has the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. Tehran’s Foreign Ministry later said its nuclear policy was unchanged and that it still adhered to a religious edict by Iran’s supreme leader banning weapons of mass destruction.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a meeting in Tehran, Iran, June 23, 2022. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Grossi said Friday: “We are in a very complicated situation because Iran is not only advancing decisively and rapidly but concomitantly which reduces the IAEA’s visibility over all those areas.”

Last month Iran removed 27 surveillance cameras from nuclear sites in the country, with the IAEA saying this raised the risk of its inspectors being unable to track Tehran’s advances.

Grossi said then the move posed a “serious challenge” to its efforts, warning that it would be unable to maintain a “continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s program. “This would be a fatal blow” to negotiations, he said.

On Friday he said he believed nuclear negotiations had stalled over non-nuclear issues, which has been indicated by the US as well. Iran has demanded that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from a blacklist of terror organizations, which the US has refused to do.

“I think there was a fairly solid agreement on the nuclear part, but what clearly transpires is that there are other areas, economic, political, financial, where there is no agreement,” Grossi said.

This satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear site, as well as ongoing construction to expand the facility in a nearby mountain south of Natanz. Iran, May 9, 2022. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

“The end result is that I have been in very low visibility for almost five weeks, with a nuclear program advancing at a gallop and, therefore, if there is an agreement, it will be very difficult for me to piece together the puzzle of all this period of forced blindness. It is not impossible, but it will require a very complex task and perhaps some specific agreements.”

In June the IAEA censured Iran for its failure to provide “credible information” over man-made nuclear material found at three undeclared sites in the country.

“The explanations provided by Iran so far have been insufficient and in some cases technically not credible,” Grossi said Friday.

Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, though UN experts and Western intelligence agencies say Iran had an organized military nuclear program through 2003.

Former US president Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal in 2018 and re-imposed crushing sanctions on Tehran, setting off a series of tense incidents across the wider Mideast. Iran responded by massively increasing its nuclear work, growing its stockpile of highly enriched uranium and spinning advanced centrifuges banned by the accord.

Israel has long opposed the nuclear accord, saying it delayed rather than ended Iran’s nuclear progress and arguing that sanctions relief empowered Tehran’s proxy militias across the region.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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