Iran’s stock of uranium enriched to up to 60% purity, close to weapons grade, continues to grow, and there has been no progress in talks with Tehran on sensitive issues, such as explaining uranium traces at undeclared sites, according to two reports by the UN nuclear watchdog seen by Reuters on Monday.
According to one of the confidential quarterly reports to member states, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to up to 60% purity, close to the roughly 90% of weapons grade, continued to increase, albeit at a slower pace, despite some of it having been diluted.
These developments came as somewhat of a surprise given the clear progress between the West and Iran in recent weeks toward unfreezing about $10 billion in Iranian assets, releasing five US citizens in Iranian prisons, and reduced attacks by Iranian proxies against US forces in the Middle East.
“The [IAEA] Director-General [Rafael Grossi] regrets that there has been no progress in resolving the outstanding safeguards issues in this reporting period,” one of the reports said, referring to Iran’s failure to credibly explain the origin of uranium particles found at two undeclared sites.
This statement will be received favorably by Israel, which was furious with the IAEA for closing two other investigations into Iran’s nuclear program in April and was concerned that the agency would soon close the remaining two probes as well.
The reports, sent to IAEA member states ahead of a quarterly meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors next week, also said after limited progress on reinstalling IAEA surveillance cameras in the previous quarter, there had been none since then, raising tensions further with the West.
Iran and the IAEA announced an agreement in March on reinstalling surveillance cameras introduced under a deal with major powers in 2015, but which was removed at Iran’s behest last year. Only a fraction of the cameras and other monitoring devices the IAEA wanted to set up have actually been installed.
Last November, Grossi said returning to the JCPOA 2015 nuclear deal would be very difficult in terms of assuring that Iran had not cheated or concealed illegal volumes of uranium given how long the ayatollahs have blinded about 27 IAEA cameras since early 2022 and that IAEA access to its own data had been restricted by Iran dating back to February 2021.
Adding to the issues likely to cause tension with the West, Iran’s stock of uranium enriched to up to 60% grew by an estimated 7.5 kilograms to 121.6 kg., the report said, even though 6.4 kg. of it was diluted with uranium enriched to a lower level.
Iran’s production of uranium enriched to up to 60% has slowed to around three kg. a month from about nine kg. a month previously, a senior diplomat said.
Other diplomats have said the slowdown could be part of so-called “de-escalation” efforts between Iran and the US also involving Iranian funds frozen abroad and US prisoners held in Iran, although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has denied the issues are linked.
“Of course, Iran claims [the slowdown in enrichment to up to 60%] as a positive, but more HEU [highly enriched uranium] is still more HEU,” a Western diplomat said.
Ultimately, how to view Iran’s current enrichment efforts would depend both on whether one takes into account the dilution of 6.4 kg., which would bring down the total of new enriched uranium from 7.5 kg. to 1.1 kg., and on whether the goal for this period when no official return to the JCPOA has been declared was an Iranian freeze or a significant slowdown.
From the Israeli perspective, even a slowdown is highly insufficient because it still leaves Iran with enough 60% enriched uranium to potentially develop three nuclear weapons, along with possibly another four or so from 20% medium-enriched uranium.
Under the JCPOA, Iran’s enriched uranium was to remain at 3.67%, even under the 5% level.
Cameras without footage
The IAEA continues to have regular access to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities and its core nuclear activities under long-standing agreements that predate the 2015 nuclear deal, but the 2015 deal added monitoring to areas such as the production of parts for centrifuges, machines that enrich uranium.
Even where IAEA monitoring equipment has been reinstalled, such as at a site in Isfahan, it does not have access to the footage that its cameras record because that was not included in the March agreement it negotiated with Iran.
One of Monday’s reports spelled out that problem.
“The Director General reiterates that for Agency cameras to be effective, including those installed at Esfahan, the Agency needs access to the data they record,” it said.
Put differently, as Grossi himself said multiple times in recent years, the IAEA has some recording devices, but it is actually blind about what is really happening in various key areas.
It was unclear when Iran would reinstall the rest of the IAEA cameras it has committed to, and it appears that it will not allow the IAEA access to all of the footage lost since 2021 before a full removal of sanctions and possibly even only if the two remaining probes are closed.
The IAEA, so far, has steadfastly refused to close the two remaining probes unless Iran explains the illicit sites and materials that it was caught with.
The two probes are based on Iran’s own nuclear secrets, which the Mossad seized in a daring operation in 2018.