Iran has halted its most sensitive nuclear activity under a ground-breaking deal with world powers, a confidential UN atomic agency report obtained by Reuters showed, paving the way for the easing of some Western sanctions.
The report by the International Atomic Energy also said Iran had begun diluting its stockpile of uranium enriched to the fissile concentration of 20 percent - a level that took it closer to the capability of producing fuel for an atom bomb.
Iran was also continuing to convert some of this reserve into oxide for producing reactor fuel, the IAEA said, making the material less suitable for any attempt to manufacture bombs.
The IAEA report to member states said: "The Agency confirms that, as of 20 January 2014, Iran ... has ceased enriching uranium above 5 percent U-235 at the two cascades at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) and four cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) previously used for this purpose."
It was referring to Iran's two enrichment plants, at Natanz and Fordow. Cascades are interlinked networks of centrifuge machines that enrich uranium. Iranian state television earlier said Iran had suspended 20 percent enrichment at Natanz and that inspectors were heading to Fordow.
"The suspension of 20 percent enrichment has started at the Natanz plant and the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are going to the Fordow plant," state TV quoted the deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organiation, Behrouz Kamalvandi, as saying.
Iran has been enriching uranium to 20 percent concentration of the fissile U-235 isotope since early 2010, stoking Western alarm over the nature of its nuclear program.
While that activity has now stopped, it will continue to produce lower-level uranium with an enrichment level of up to 5 percent under the nuclear agreement with the six world powers - the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia.
The IAEA report also listed other measures Iran had agreed to take under the six-month accord. Those included an undertaking that it would not build any more enrichment sites during the next half year, when Iran and the powers will seek to negotiate a final settlement of Tehran's decade-old nuclear stand-off with the powers.
The IAEA report also said Iran was, as of January 20, not "conducting any further advances" to its activities at the Arak heavy water research reactor, a plant under construction that could yield plutonium as an alternative fuel for atomic bombs once it is operational. Iran denies any such goal.
In a January 18 letter to the Vienna-based IAEA, Iran had enclosed information on centrifuge assembly workshops, storage facilities and centrifuge rotor production workshops, the report added.
"The Agency and Iran have also agreed on arrangements for increased access by agency inspectors to the nuclear facilities at Natanz and Fordow, including in relation to weekends and holidays in Iran," the IAEA said.
The IAEA will play a pivotal role in checking that Iran lives up to its part of the interim accord by curbing uranium enrichment in exchange for some relaxation of international sanctions that are severely damaging its oil-dependent economy.
It has had one to two teams of two inspectors each on the ground in Iran virtually every day of the year to check there is no diversion of nuclear materials, but that number will now increase significantly.
The inspection presence in Iran will "roughly double" in order to monitor the implementation of Tehran's agreement with the powers, chief IAEA inspector Tero Varjoranta said.
Confirming a Reuters report on Friday, he told reporters the IAEA's extra workload would cost around 6 million euros, much of which will need to be funded by IAEA member states.
Varjoranta, IAEA deputy director general for safeguards, said the UN agency's work to verify that Iran had carried out the agreed steps on Monday went "very well ... we could do our work in a very effective manner".
Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Reza Najafi, said there had been a "good start" and that Tehran was looking forward to the powers easing sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Enriched uranium can have both military and civilian purposes. Iran denies Western allegations that it has been seeking to develop the capability to make nuclear bombs, saying it wants only civilian atomic energy.
An Iranian official told state television on Monday that Iran has suspended its higher-grade enrichment of uranium at its Natanz nuclear plant.
The interim deal, reached in November between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 – the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany – temporarily freezes Iran’s enrichment of uranium above 5 percent, and its production of a heavy-water plutonium plant in Arak, in exchange for $6-7 billion in sanctions relief doled out in increments over the next six months.
Marking the start of the deal, a team of inspectors will make their first visit to Natanz and Fordow, two of Iran’s largest uranium enrichment facilities, on Monday. They will report their findings back to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, tasked with verifying and confirming the international agreement is properly enforced.
The IAEA team that arrived in Iran on Saturday is led by Massimo Aparo, a veteran of the United Nations organization’s safeguards department whose work includes the advocacy of regulated civilian nuclear energy.
The Geneva agreement requires Iran to begin diluting its stockpile of uranium already enriched to nearly 20% – considered the hardest part of the enrichment process, unnecessary for purposes of civilian power but required for the construction of a warhead – on the very first day of the agreement. The IAEA is tasked with not only ensuring that Iran disable its centrifuge cascades producing near-20% enriched material, but also that it begins the dilution process.
Meanwhile, the first of six installments of sanctions relief, described by the White House as “restricted,” will not be accessible by Iran’s government until February 1. Each installment interval is $450- 550 million. Iran will receive a final bulk installment of $4.2 billion on the last day of the six-month period.
Other concessions by the P5+1 will not go into effect until “the IAEA has confirmed Iran is implementing its commitments,” the White House said last week.
Assuming the IAEA confirms today that the Iranians are abiding by the deal, the international community will ease sanctions on Iran’s automotive manufacturing and aviation sectors, precious metals and petrochemical exports.