Iran breaches nuclear deal with enrichment push, says UN watchdog

IAEA confirms Tehran's announcement last week that it began refining uranium, while EU considers reimposing sanctions.

    Iran said last week it had begun refining uranium at Fordow, a site built inside a mountain to protect it from any aerial bombardment [Ronald Zak/AP Photo]
    Iran said last week it had begun refining uranium at Fordow, a site built inside a mountain to protect it from any aerial bombardment [Ronald Zak/AP Photo]

    Iran has begun enriching uranium at its underground Fordow site in the latest breach of its deal with major powers, the United Nations nuclear watchdog confirmed on Monday, adding that Tehran's enriched uranium stock has continued to grow.

    Iran is overstepping the deal's limits on its nuclear activities one after the other in response to the United States's withdrawal from the accord last year and its reimposition of sanctions that have crippled Iran's oil trade. Tehran has said it can quickly undo those breaches if the sanctions are removed.

    In perhaps its most symbolic breach yet, Iran said last week it had begun refining uranium at Fordow, a site built inside a mountain apparently to protect it from any aerial bombardment, and one that Tehran concealed from UN inspectors until 2009.

    The 2015 deal banned enrichment and nuclear materials there but allowed some centrifuges for research purposes.

    In a quarterly report obtained by Reuters News Agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) policing the deal said: "Since 9 November ... Iran has been conducting uranium enrichment at the plant."

    Washington said its "maximum pressure" campaign will force Iran to negotiate a more sweeping deal, covering its ballistic missile programme and its role in Middle Eastern conflicts. Iran responded by saying it will not negotiate until sanctions are lifted. Other parties to the deal are trying to prevent its total collapse.

    EU considers reimposing sanctions

    Iran's moves raised pressure on the remaining parties to the deal, particularly the so-called "E3 powers" -  France, the United Kingdom and Germany - which say they still hope to save the accord, to respond.

    German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday the E3 powers must be ready to react, and that could mean reimposing international sanctions on Tehran.

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    "Iran must finally return to its commitments [under the 2015 accord]," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said before a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels.

    "Otherwise, we will reserve the right to use all mechanisms specified in the deal [for sanctions to be reimposed]," he said,

    Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she was contacting the signatories to decide what to do next.

    EU ministers did not discuss sanctions on Monday but it is becoming "more and more difficult" to save the accord, she said.

    "We might have a Joint Commission meeting in the coming days," Mogherini said, referring to the forum where the signatories can discuss problems and potentially set the ground for exploring sanctions.

    A senior EU diplomat said the Joint Commission meeting in Vienna could take place next week at the level of political directors.

    Any of the signatories can trigger a dispute resolution process that could culminate at the UN Security Council with a so-called "snapback" of global UN sanctions on Iran.

    Deal violations

    Since early July, Iran has violated the deal's caps on its stock of enriched uranium and the level to which it refines uranium, as well as a ban on enriching with anything other than its most basic centrifuge, the IR-1.

    Iran has continued to increase the number of various types of advanced centrifuge with which it is enriching at the one site where enrichment is allowed under the deal: Natanz.

    In the past two weeks, it has begun enriching with two large, 164-machine cascades - which were removed under the deal - of the more advanced IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuges. Another cascade with the IR-6 is planned.

    Iran has long said it wants enriched uranium only for civilian energy applications.

    Acceleration

    The rate at which Iran is producing enriched uranium has also increased, from 70-80kg a month to around 100kg a month currently and still accelerating, a senior diplomat said.

    "I would expect that this 100 kilos per month becomes much higher. I don't know whether it will become 150, 170 or 200. We don't know that," the senior diplomat said.

    The report's latest snapshot of Iran's stock of enriched uranium was 372.3kg, well above the deal's 202.8kg cap.

    The deal as a whole is designed to keep Iran a year away from producing enough fissile material for a bomb if it chose to. So far, that time has only shrunk slightly but it will take time for the effect of the latest changes to become clear.

    In what appears to be a new breach of the deal, Iran has also installed small numbers of centrifuges not even mentioned in the accord, including single models of the IR-8s, IR-8B, IR-9 and IR-s, the report showed.

    SOURCE: News agencies