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Source: Bloomberg

Feb 19, 2023

By Jonathan Tirone

  • IAEA probes accumulation of material just shy of bomb-grade

  • Inspectors are preparing quarterly safeguards report on Iran

International atomic monitors in Iran last week detected uranium enriched to levels just below that needed for a nuclear weapon, according to two senior diplomats, underscoring the risk that the country’s unrestrained atomic activities could prompt a new crisis.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is trying to clarify how Iran accumulated uranium enriched to 84% purity — the highest level found by inspectors in the country to date, and a concentration just 6% below what’s needed for a weapon. Iran had previously told the IAEA that its centrifuges were configured to enrich uranium to a 60% level of purity.

Inspectors need to determine whether Iran intentionally produced the material, or whether the concentration was an unintended accumulation within the network of pipes connecting the hundreds of fast-spinning centrifuges used to separate the isotopes. It’s the second time this month that monitors have detected suspicious enrichment-related activities.

A senior Iranian nuclear official denied Iran had enriched uranium beyond 60% purity “so far” and dismissed the development as “a smear and a distortion of the facts.”

“The existence of uranium particles above 60% does not mean the same thing as enrichment above 60%,” Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.   

The IAEA responded on Sunday and said it is discussing with Iran the results of the agency’s recent verification activities and will inform its board of directors as appropriate, according to a tweet citing IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi.

The development comes as Iran is increasingly isolated from the West and nuclear talks with world powers remain suspended. The country has also faced widespread condemnation for its deadly crackdown on major protests and the US and European Union have tightened sanctions on Iran over its military support for Russia’s war on Ukraine.

US Focus on Iran Is Thwarting Weapons Aid to Russia, Envoy Says 

Earlier on Sunday, Israel blamed Iran for a Feb. 10 attack on an oil tanker in the Arabian Sea. The incident came about a fortnight after a drone strike on a weapons depot near Iran’s city of Isfahan that Tehran blamed on Israel. 

The IAEA is preparing its quarterly Iran safeguards report ahead of a March 6 Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, where the Persian Gulf nation’s nuclear work will figure prominently on the agenda. 

Iran's Highly-Enriched Stockpile

Uranium enriched to 60% levels of purity swelled during nuclear talks

Iran hasn’t submitted required forms declaring its intention to raise uranium enrichment levels at two facilities near the towns of Natanz and Fordow, according to one diplomat. 

Even if the detected material was mistakenly accumulated because of technical difficulties in operating the centrifuge cascades — something that has happened before — it underscores the danger of Iran’s decision to produce highly enriched uranium, the other diplomat said. 

The IAEA has repeatedly said levels even at just 60% are technically indistinguishable from the level needed for a nuclear weapon. Most nuclear power reactors use material enriched to 5% purity. 

A nuclear deal between Iran and world powers unraveled after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. In response, Iranian officials expanded the country’s nuclear program. Tehran denies it’s seeking to build atomic warheads but concerns it might develop the technology to do so propelled years of diplomacy that led to the deal with world powers. 

Grossi called the atomic deal an “empty shell” last month and said Iran has sufficient nuclear material for several weapons, should it make the political decision to move forward. 

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