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Source: Newsweek

Dec 27, 2023

Iran's Nuclear Escalation Worries US as Tensions Mount

By Khaleda Rahman

Iran has tripled its rate of production of near weapons-grade uranium in recent weeks, according to a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, amid mounting tensions with the United States.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in the report to member states that Iran "in recent weeks had increased its production of highly enriched uranium," a spokesperson for the United Nations nuclear watchdog told Newsweek.

Earlier this year, Iran had slowed down the rate at which it was enriching uranium to 60 percent purity—which can then quickly be converted to weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.

IAEA's inspectors verified the increased production of highly enriched uranium at both of Iran's main nuclear facilities on December 19 and 24, the spokesperson said.

The agency confirmed that since the end of November, Iran has increased the rate of production of enriched uranium to about 9 kilograms a month at facilities in Natanz and Fordow.

"This represents an increase from the approximately 3 kg that was produced per month since June and a return to the monthly rate of 9 kg during the first half of 2023," the spokesperson said.

Iran maintains that it is not seeking nuclear weapons and that its program is only for peaceful purposes, but Grossi warned in January that Tehran had enough enriched uranium to build "several" nuclear weapons.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said the Biden administration is "greatly concerned" by the IAEA report.

"Iran has no credible civilian justification for enrichment up to 60 percent," the spokesperson told Newsweek.

"Iran's nuclear escalation is all the more concerning at a time when Iran as well as Iran-backed militant groups and Iran's proxies continue their dangerous and destabilizing activities in the region."

They cited a drone attack against U.S. personnel in Iraq, attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea by Yemen's Houthi rebels, and a drone attack on a chemical tanker in the Indian Ocean that the Pentagon blamed on Iran. Iran denied attacking the tanker.

The spokesperson said Iran "must fully cooperate with the IAEA, including by providing the IAEA with all requested access and information so that the IAEA can verify Iran's nuclear activities and ensure that there is no diversion or misuse of nuclear material."

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have escalated since the Israel-Hamas war began following the Palestinian militant group's October 7 attack.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday ordered the U.S. military to carry out retaliatory airstrikes against Iranian-backed militia groups after the drone attack in Iraq.

The move is the latest in a series of back-and-forth strikes that have escalated since Iranian-backed militants began striking U.S. facilities in the region on October 17, the day hundreds were killed in an explosion at a hospital in Gaza, the Associated Press reported.

In an exclusive interview with Newsweek earlier in December, Amir Saeid Iravani, the Iranian ambassador to the U.N., said Israel has "increasingly become a burden for America in terms of material, political, and, notably, moral and reputational costs on the global stage.

In such circumstances, neither America's strategic interests nor Israel's capabilities necessitate the initiation of a new conflict."

Iravani also dismissed talk from Israeli officials about wanting to eliminate the threat of a nuclear Iran.

"Israel lacks the capacity to undertake invasions without the unequivocal backing of the United States," he said. "As the Gaza conflict persists, the associated cost of this support for the United States is exponentially escalating.

There arises a critical juncture where America must consider conditioning and constraining this support or risk falling prey to the thwarted ambitions of Israel's leadership."

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