Iran increases uranium enrichment amid freeze in nuclear talks

Tehran has a large enough stock of enriched uranium to build a bomb, reports find

In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line the hall damaged on Sunday, April 11, 2021, at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, some 200 miles (322 km) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. Iran named a suspect Saturday in the attack on its Natanz nuclear facility that damaged centrifuges there, as Reza Karimi and said he had fled the country "hours before" the sabotage happened. (IRIB via AP, File)
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Iran could already have more than three times the required highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon, reports by the UN atomic watchdog have found.

The International Atomic Energy Agency calculates that 41kg of uranium, enriched to 60 per cent, is the “approximate amount of nuclear material for which the possibility of manufacturing a nuclear explosive cannot be excluded”.

According to reports seen by Reuters, Iran’s stocks of uranium enriched to 60 per cent reached 142.1kg as of May 11.

Nuclear proliferation experts at the Institute for Science and International Security say that uranium enriched to 90 per cent is ideal for a bomb, but that devices can be built at lower levels.

Sixty per cent enrichment is also often described as being a small technical step away from having dangerous 90 per cent weapons-grade uranium.

In April, the IAEA warned Iran could be months or weeks away from being able to construct a nuclear weapon.

Experts, including those at the IAEA, said Iran would still need to pass several hurdles to create a bomb once the uranium is ready, such as making a bomb small enough to fit on to a missile, which Iran is thought to have begun researching decades ago.

“There has been no progress in the past year towards implementing the Joint Statement of 4 March 2023,” one of the two reports to member states, both of which were seen by Reuters, said.

Nuclear talks frozen

The IAEA’s latest assessment paints a grim picture of the prospects of reviving a nuclear deal, forged in 2015 under the Barack Obama administration, with EU backing.

Under the deal, Iran minimised nuclear research, accepting UN inspections of its atomic complexes in exchange for the lifting of tight economic sanctions.

Former US president Donald Trump walked away from in 2018 and imposed sanctions on Iran.

Efforts to revive the deal under President Joe Biden failed, and prospects look dim under acting Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri-Kani given his previous stance towards the agreement.

Mr Bagheri-Kani replaced Hossein Amirabdollahian who died in a May 19 helicopter crash alongside president Ebrahim Raisi and had been involved in failed talks to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna.

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi recently said talks were currently paused after the fatal crash.

In a 2021 opinion piece for the Financial Times, while he was Iranian deputy foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Mr Bagheri-Kani claimed that no deal offered by the West could be trusted.

“Experience tells us that the West does not seek to implement a deal. Rather, it seeks to score public perception points by announcing one while stealthily ‘dis-implementing’ the agreement in every possible way,” he said.

Hardliners also dominate Iran’s parliament, further reducing the chance that talks can be revived.

The IAEA has also long been at loggerheads with Iran over several issues following the collapse of the JCPOA.

At their lowest point in relations, Iran in 2021 accused the UN watchdog of secretly working with Israel to sabotage nuclear research compounds, after a series of blasts at vital sites including Natanz, where uranium is enriched underground.

Iran said cameras installed to monitor nuclear research, agreed on under the JCPOA, were part of a sabotage operation.

Iran subsequently denied inspectors access to crucial sites, and has refused to explain the presence of highly enriched, man-made uranium particles at three areas it claims no research had been conducted.

Weapons programme

Iran is now approaching a position where it could obtain a nuclear device, according to Chuck Freilich, former deputy Israeli national security adviser and adjunct professor at Columbia University in the US and Tel Aviv University.

Such an eventuality would represent “another severe security failure, one of many, that started with the totally misguided support for withdrawal from the nuclear agreement,” he says, referring to years of hawkish policy under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who forged close ties with the Trump administration during its “Maximum Pressure” campaign.

Mr Freilich says that current regional tensions and the global focus on Gaza and the Red Sea attacks now play into Iran’s hands.

“I don't think there is any bandwidth today for concerted action against Iran. Maybe after November,” he said, referring to forthcoming elections in the US.

“The Director General reiterates to the new government of Iran his call for, and disposition to continue with, the high-level dialogue and ensuing technical exchanges commenced … on 6-7 May 2024,” one of the reports said.

Eighteen months have passed since the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors last passed a resolution against Iran, ordering it to co-operate urgently with a years-long IAEA investigation into uranium particles found at the undeclared sites.

While the number of sites has since been reduced to two, Iran has still not explained how the traces got there. “The director general regrets that the outstanding safeguards issues have not been resolved,” the report said, referring to those traces.

Updated: May 28, 2024, 2:51 PM