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UN nuclear chief meets with Iranians amid enrichment concerns

VIENNA — The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog met with officials in Iran on Saturday, days after it was revealed the country had enriched uranium particles to near weapons-grade levels. which has sparked fresh alarm over its long-contested nuclear program.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, declined at a news conference to comment on his talks with Iran’s nuclear program chief, saying the delegation’s work was still ongoing.

Grossi then met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian.

A joint statement released by the IAEA and Iran’s nuclear agency after the visit offered only vague assurances that Iran would further facilitate access for inspectors and made no mention of highly enriched particles.

The statement appears unlikely to allay Western concerns ahead of a Monday meeting of the UN agency’s board of governors, which could vote to censor Iran for the third time in less than a year. Iran has responded to past reproaches by stepping up its nuclear program or limiting access for IAEA inspectors.

Earlier this week, the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog reported that uranium particles enriched up to 83.7% – just below weapons grade – had been found in Iran’s underground Fordo nuclear site. .

The IAEA’s confidential quarterly report, which was distributed to member countries on Tuesday, came as tensions were already high amid months of anti-government protests in Iran and Western anger over its export of drones from Iran. attack on Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.

The IAEA report says inspectors found in January that two IR-6 centrifuge cascades at the Fordo facility were configured in a “substantially different” way than Iran had previously said. This raised fears that Iran was accelerating its enrichment. The IAEA took samples the next day, which showed particles of up to 83.7% purity, according to the report.

The report spoke only of “particles”, suggesting that Iran is not building up a stockpile of uranium enriched to more than 60% – the level at which it has been enriching for some time. But the watchdog said it would increase the “frequency and intensity” of its activities at Fordo.

Iran has sought to present any detection of highly enriched uranium particles as a momentary side effect of trying to achieve a finished product of 60% purity. However, experts say such a large discrepancy in purity, even at the atomic level, would appear suspicious to inspectors.

Iran’s nuclear program chief Mohammad Eslami acknowledged the findings of the IAEA report during the press conference with Grossi, but said it was not an 84% enrichment. He said the “ambiguity” of the findings had been resolved.

Non-proliferation experts say Tehran has no civilian use for even 60% enriched uranium. A stockpile of material enriched to 90%, the level needed for weapons, could quickly be used to produce an atomic bomb, if Iran so chooses.

The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers limited Tehran’s stockpile of uranium and capped enrichment at 3.67%, which is enough to power a nuclear power plant. He also banned nuclear enrichment at Fordo, which was built deep inside a mountain in order to resist air attacks.

The United States unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018, reimposing crushing sanctions on Iran, which then began openly violating the accord’s restrictions. Efforts by the Biden administration, European countries and Iran to broker a return to the deal stalled last summer.

The joint statement released on Saturday said Iran “expressed its willingness to continue cooperation and provide further information and access to resolve outstanding safeguards issues.”

This was a reference to a separate set of problems with highly enriched particles.

For the past four years, the IAEA has accused Iran of obstructing its investigation into traces of processed uranium found at three undeclared sites in the country. The agency’s 35-member board of governors censured Iran twice last year for failing to cooperate fully.

Western officials have suggested that the so-called investigation into the safeguards of the three sites could confirm long-held suspicions that Iran had a nuclear weapons program until 2003. Iran has long denied having ever researched nuclear weapons and continues to insist that its nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes. .

The dispute over the safeguards inquiry was the main stumbling block in negotiations last year to reinstate the nuclear deal.


Krauss reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates


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