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UN nuclear chief meets with Iranians amid enrichment concerns


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

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

“It’s an atmosphere of work, honesty and cooperation,” Grossi said. He was due to speak to reporters again when he returns to Vienna later on Saturday.

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

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

The IAEA report says that in January, inspectors discovered that two IR-6 centrifuge cascades at Iran’s Fordo facility had been configured in a “substantially different” manner than previously stated. The IAEA took samples the next day, which showed particles of up to 83.7% purity, according to the report.

The IAEA 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. However, the agency also said in its report that it would “further increase the frequency and intensity of agency verification activities” in Fordo following the discovery.

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 desires.

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.

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.

Iran has long denied ever researching nuclear weapons and maintains its program is peaceful, but it is widely believed to have had a nuclear weapons program until 2003.

Grossi’s last visit to Iran was in March 2022.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.