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IAEA Chief Says Iran’s Nuclear Enrichment Activity Remains High

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Iran continues to enrich uranium well beyond the needs for commercial nuclear use, the IAEA chief said, adding he wanted to visit Tehran next month for the first time in a year to end the “drifting apart”.

Speaking to Reuters after he briefed EU foreign ministers on the subject, the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Rafael Grossi, said that while the pace of uranium enrichment had slowed slightly since the end of last year, Iran was still enriching at an elevated rate of around 7 kg of uranium per month to 60% purity.

Enrichment to 60% brings uranium close to weapons grade, and is not necessary for commercial use in nuclear power production. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons but no other state has enriched to that level without producing them.

Under a defunct 2015 agreement with world powers, Iran can enrich uranium only to 3.67%. After then-President Donald Trump pulled the US out of that deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, Iran breached and moved well beyond the deal’s nuclear restrictions.

Between June and November last year, Iran slowed down the enrichment to 3 kg per month, but jumped back up to a rate of 9 kg at the end of the year, the watchdog, known as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), previously reported.

The increase came soon after Tehran barred a third of the IAEA’s core inspections team, including the most experienced, from taking part in agreed monitoring of the enrichment process.

A number of Iranian centrifuges on display during an expo in Shiraz, February 2024

“This slowdown, speedup thing is like a cycle that for me does not alter the fundamental trend, which is a trend of constant increase in inventory of highly enriched uranium,” said Grossi.

A spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation was not immediately available for comment.

The IAEA warned at the end of 2023 that Tehran already had enough material to make three nuclear bombs if it enriches the material now at 60% to beyond 60%.

“There is a concerning rhetoric, you may have heard high officials in Iran saying they have all the elements for a nuclear weapon lately,” Grossi said.

He said the concern was all the higher because of what he termed current circumstances in the Middle East, a reference to tensions over Israel’s war with Iran-backed Hamas in Gaza.

“We seem to be drifting apart… Iran says they are not getting incentives from the West, but I find this logic very complicated to understand because they should work with us… It should never be contingent on economic or other incentives.”

Before visiting Tehran, Grossi is to fly to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Iran and the Middle East, along with Ukraine.

Russia is a signatory of the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), alongside the US, China, France, Britain and Germany. The deal lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear activities.

“Russia has a role to play on Iran. It has played a role in the past as a JCPOA country and in the current circumstances where JCPOA is all but disintegrated, something must fill the void,” he said.

Ukraine

Grossi said he saw a decrease in military operations around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe.

Fears of a serious nuclear incident were high when Russian forces took over the facility in 2022 and again following the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam last year.

“There hasn’t been a militarization, any deployment of heavy artillery,” he said, adding that nearby combat zones and recurring blackouts remained a worry.

“The minimum staff required to look after the plant in the current situation is there,” he said.

Grossi said the minimum staffing was still met despite about 100 members refusing to sign a new contract with Russia’s Rosatom that took over operations of the idled plant in 2022.

A participant is seen at the stand of Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom during the Russian Energy Week International Forum in Moscow, Russia October 13, 2021.

Sanctioning Rosatom

The EU has so far held back on sanctioning Russia’s state-owned nuclear firm Rosatom or any of its subsidiaries despite numerous calls to target that industry. Europe still relies heavily on Rosatom which supplies nearly 50% of the world’s enriched uranium.

“Many companies in the West depend on Russian supplies – enriched uranium or fuel… The consensus is sanctioning Rosatom would not be realistic and it’s impractical. It would put the nuclear industry at a standstill in many countries,” Grossi said.

Reducing dependence on Russia’s nuclear sector would cost Europe billions, Grossi said, and he saw no immediate shift away. He added that the larger issue was infrastructure and incentives, and projections of rising uranium demand globally.

“Frankly, I see an increased presence of Russian uranium enrichment capabilities in the world rather than a decrease,” he said.

(Exclusive reporting by Reuters)