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IAEA confirms Iran enriching to 60% at Fordow
The E3 condemned the Iranian decision as ‘unacceptable’ response to IAEA board censure resolution, and said it further hollows out JCPOA.
The UN atomic watchdog agency today confirmed that Iran has started enriching uranium to 60% purity at the underground Fordow facility, among other announced steps allegedly taken in response to a resolution censuring Iran last week by the Agency’s board. European powers condemned the Iranian actions as an unacceptable and disproportionate response to the censure, and warned that they further imperil stalled efforts to try to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi today said Iran had started producing high enriched uranium – UF6 enriched up to 60% - using the existing two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges in the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), in addition to such production that has taken place at Natanz since April 2021,” an IAEA spokesman said in a statement.
“Iran also plans a significant expansion of low enriched uranium production – UF6 enriched up to 5% or up to 20% - at Fordow through the installation of 14 more cascades of advanced IR-6 centrifuges, six of which will replace existing cascades of IR-1 centrifuges,” the IAEA spokesman said.
“Director General Grossi said the Agency will inform Iran of its intention to increase the frequency and intensity of its verification activities at FFEP in accordance with the Safeguards Agreement,” the IAEA said.
The IAEA DG report also informed member states that Iran now plans to install a second production building, capable of housing over 100 centrifuge cascades, at the above-ground Natanz enrichment site.
The three European (E3) parties to the nuclear deal, Britain, France and Germany, condemned the Iranian steps, which they said further hollow out the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“By increasing its production capabilities at Fordow and Natanz,… and by accelerating its production of enriched uranium, Iran has taken further significant steps in hollowing out the JCPOA,” the E3 said in a statement.
“Especially concerning is Iran’s decision to increase its production of High Enriched Uranium at its underground facility at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant,” the E3 said. “This step, which carries significant proliferation-related risks, has no credible civilian justification.”
“Presenting this escalation as a reaction to the IAEA Board of Governors’ adoption of a resolution calling for Iran’s cooperation on safeguards is unacceptable,” the E3 statement said.
Earlier today, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Mohammad Eslami reportedly characterized Iran’s decision to start 60% enrichment at Fordow as Iran’s “response” to a resolution calling on Iran last week to cooperate with an IAEA probe into atomic particles found at three sites. Iran has since September demanded that the IAEA safeguards probe be dropped if the other parties want to revive the JCPOA.
American and European diplomats had expected an Iranian response to the censure resolution last week, but this was on the far end of what was anticipated.
The announced Iranian steps “were not totally unexpected, but are very far reaching,” a European diplomat said today.
The White House reiterated that the United States will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.
“We've long observed that Iran has continued to try to shorten their breakout time,” National Security Council official John Kirby told journalists on a Zoom call this morning. “This is why, when we came into office, we worked so hard to pursue a renewal reentry into the JCPOA. Obviously, we're not close to that right now.”
“But we are continuing to watch not only their nuclear progress with deep concern, but also their continually improving ballistic missile capability,” and other threats Iran poses to the region and beyond, Kirby said. “That's why we're going to make sure we have all options available to the President. And they are. And it’s why we certainly have not changed our view that we will not allow Iran to achieve a nuclear weapons capability.”
US nonproliferation experts said Iran’s actions were a disproportionate response to the resolution, and are troubling for already dwindling prospects for restoring the JCPOA’s nuclear limits.
“This is a serious escalation,” Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said in an interview. “It's not proportional to the IAEA board censuring Iran for failing to meet its legal obligations.”
“There is no legitimate civil justification for producing 60% enriched uranium,” Davenport said.
“This is Iran sending a message to the U.S. and Europeans that it can ratchet up pressure more quickly than sanctions can be turned up,” she said.
“We're in a tough spot,” former NSC nonproliferation expert Eric Brewer, now with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said in an interview.
In addition to the fact that Iran’s nuclear program is advancing, Iranian protests spurred initially by the death of 22 year old Mahsa Amini following her arrest by Iran’s so-called morality police have persisted for more than two months; and Iran has provided hundreds of armed drones being used by Russia to kill Ukrainians.
For US policymakers, “the situation has gotten a lot more complex and complicated,” Brewer said.
“I think in the United States, there's this broad recognition of the non-proliferation benefits of going back into the deal,” Brewer said. “And I think that's an important thing to be clear on. But nevertheless, there's also a recognition of the shortcomings of the deal, and of the other… challenges that also need to be dealt with, and so it's a much more muddled picture than it was in 2015.”
“At the end of the day, I think one of the things the United States has to do is make sure that it is able to make good on its commitment that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons,” Brewer said. “Part of that is an intelligence function. Part of that is a function of trying to plan for the scenarios that could lead to that and be prepared for them.”
While it is positive that Iran did not take steps to further reduce IAEA monitoring or in the area of uranium metal, the announced Iranian “steps on the enrichment side are quite significant,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “When you look at the level, the location and the type of centrifuges being used…it is quite sizeable and should be concerning.”
“I think the steps like this today… may make it harder, even if there was political interest in trying to revive the deal, to do that, because it raises the price that Iran would have to pay for accepting nuclear limitations,” Rome said. “And given all of the knowledge that Iran will be accumulating by using more of the IR-6 machines that erodes breakout to some degree that could be achieved.”
“Certainly the list of things that are bad for JCPOA seems to keep growing by the day,” Rome said. “I think we are in a cycle here without a clear off ramp, with diplomatic talks frozen.”
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