Iran has enriched uranium to nearly bomb grade, IAEA says

Iran could make enough fissile for one nuclear bomb in 'about 12 days', US official says

This handout satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies on January 8, 2020 shows an overview of Iran's Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), northeast of the Iranian city of Qom. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the country is in no hurry to see the US return to a 2015 nuclear deal with major powers after Joe Biden takes office this month. Since 2019, Iran has gradually suspended implementation of most of its key obligations under the nuclear deal, which set strict limits on its activities in return for the lifting of sanctions. -  RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - The watermark may not be removed/cropped

 / AFP / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies / - /  RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - The watermark may not be removed/cropped
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Iran has enriched uranium to a little less than the 90 per cent needed to produce an atomic bomb, the UN's nuclear watchdog confirmed on Tuesday.

“Discussions are still ongoing” to determine the origin of these particles, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a confidential report seen by AFP.

“On 22 January 2023, the agency took environmental samples … at Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), the analytical results of which showed the presence of high-enriched uranium particles containing up to 83.7 per cent U-235,” the report said.

“These events clearly indicate the capability of the agency to detect and report in a timely manner changes in the operation of nuclear facilities in Iran.”

Asked about the presence of the particles, Iran said that “unintended fluctuations” during the enrichment process “may have occurred”.

Last week, Iran claimed it had not made any attempt to enrich uranium beyond 60 per cent.

“The presence of a particle or particles of uranium above 60 per cent in the enrichment process does not mean enrichment above 60 per cent,” said Behruz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran.

Iran has been enriching uranium well over the limits laid down in a major 2015 deal with world powers, which started to unravel when the US withdrew from it in 2018.

The deal — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — was designed to give Iran much-needed sanctions relief in return for curbs on its atomic programme.

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On-and-off negotiations between world powers to return to the deal started in 2021 but stalled last year.

The IAEA report comes as the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, Rafael Grossi, is expected to visit Tehran “in the coming days”, following an official invitation by the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran.

“In recent days, we have had constructive and promising discussions” with the IAEA delegation that was already in Iran to investigate doubts about its nuclear programme, Mr Kamalvandi said on Monday.

“It is hoped that this trip will form the basis for greater co-operation and a clearer horizon between Iran and the IAEA.”

Tehran has repeatedly insisted that it is not planning to build a nuclear bomb.

In the report, the IAEA said that Iran's estimated stockpile of enriched uranium had reached more than 18 times the limit set out in the 2015 accord.

It estimated Iran's total enriched uranium stockpile was 3,760.8kg as of February 12, an increase of 87.1kg compared to the last report in November.

The limit in the 2015 deal was set at 202.8kg.

Iran's nuclear sites — in pictures

Its stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 per cent is believed to stand at 87.5kg, up from 62.3kg, while the amount of uranium enriched up to 20 per cent has risen to 434.7kg, up from 386.4kg detailed in the November report.

The IAEA has repeatedly warned it has lost its ability to fully monitor Iran's programme since the country started to restrict access in February 2021.

Regarding the particles enriched to 83.7 per cent detected in Iran, Kelsey Davenport, expert from the Arms Control Association, said that “even if it is accidental, it is no less worrying”.

“This should be a wake-up call” for the international community, she said in a recent online briefing, calling on the US and Iran to define a new strategy to defuse the crisis.

In January, Mr Grossi said Iran had “amassed enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons”.

Iran could make enough fissile for one nuclear bomb in “about 12 days”, a top US Defence Department official said on Tuesday — down from the estimated one year it would have taken while the 2015 nuclear deal was in effect.

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U. S.  President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid shake hands as they sign a security pledge at Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel July 14, 2022.   Atef Safadi / Pool via REUTERS

Colin Kahl, US under secretary of defence for policy, made the comment during a House of Representatives hearing when pressed by a Republican politician on why President Joe Biden's administration had sought to revive the deal.

“Because Iran's nuclear progress since we left the JCPOA has been remarkable,” Mr Kahl, the third highest ranking Defence Department official, told politicians.

“Back in 2018, when the previous administration decided to leave the JCPOA, it would have taken Iran about 12 months to produce one bomb's worth of fissile material. Now it would take about 12 days.

“And so I think there is still the view that if you could resolve this issue diplomatically and put constraints back on their nuclear programme, it is better than the other options. But right now, the JCPOA is on ice.”

US officials have repeatedly estimated Iran's breakout time — how long it would take to Tehran acquire the fissile material for a bomb — at weeks but have not been as specific as Mr Kahl was.

Updated: February 28, 2023, 10:25 PM