Iran’s new pledge to allow tighter oversight of its nuclear facilities represents a key step forward, United Nations officials said Monday, as they seek to quell growing fears about Tehran’s nuclear program amid reports that the Islamic Republic may now be able to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb in just 12 days.
The recent startling revelations about how quickly Tehran could produce a nuclear weapon — compared to previous estimates of about one year — come amid growing questions about the Biden administration’s broader strategy to contain Iran’s nuclear program and its apparent lack of serious plan B after diplomatic talks with Iran failed last year. Republicans say the White House made a series of major mistakes in its Iran policy, with its ultimately futile diplomatic effort to restore the nuclear deal destroyed by President Trump appearing to have given Iran the time and cover it needed to build up its nuclear arsenal. possibilities.
The administration has responded harshly to these criticisms and insists it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Senior U.S. intelligence officials also recently said there is no clear evidence that Iran’s leaders are actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program, despite moving steadily closer to being able to produce a bomb in just weeks if they wanted to.
The re-installation of a hawkish government in Israel led by Iran’s long-time foe Benjamin Netanyahu and a series of clashes between the US, Iran and their various regional allies have only added to the sense of a crisis coming to a head.
Against this bleak backdrop, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi visited Tehran over the weekend and met with Iranian officials about the country’s nuclear program. He struck a deal that he said would allow the restoration of cameras and other monitoring equipment at key Iranian nuclear sites, including one site where uranium particles enriched to near weapons-grade levels were recently discovered.
To many, it seemed like an exercise in taking a small step back from the abyss.
“I welcome Iran’s high-level assurances that it is ready to undertake further appropriate verification and monitoring activities,” he told a key meeting of the IAEA’s board of governors on Monday. “And work with the agency to resolve outstanding safeguards issues, including those related to the three undeclared sites where the agency found traces of anthropogenic uranium particles. … I look forward to quickly engaging in technical follow-up discussions with Iran, as we agreed. We have important work ahead of us.”
However, a joint statement issued by the IAEA and Tehran over the weekend said key details about the future of inspections in Iran were still unclear.
“Iran will voluntarily allow the IAEA to conduct further appropriate verification and monitoring activities.” The terms will be agreed between both sides during a technical meeting that will take place in the near future in Tehran,” the statement said.
Mr Grossi also drew the ire of Mr Netanyahu last weekend when he told reporters that a pre-emptive strike to eliminate Iran’s nuclear facilities would be “prohibited” under international law. Speculation is rife in the region that Israel is planning to launch just such a strike if Iran comes close to deploying nuclear weapons.
“Rafael Grossi is a dignified man who made an inappropriate remark,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. “Outlaw? Is Iran, which publicly calls for our destruction, allowed to defend its weapons of destruction that will kill us?”
The head of the IAEA declined to comment on Mr. Netanyahu’s criticism, saying on Monday that “there is nothing new in what I said. I reiterated international law.”
Last week, the IAEA announced that uranium enriched to 83.7% had been found at Iran’s underground Ford nuclear site. The 2015 multinational Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed by the US during the Obama administration, limited Iran’s uranium enrichment to 3.67%, enough to produce civilian energy — which Iran says is the goal of its nuclear programs — but not enough to a weapon
Former President Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2018 and reimposed tough economic sanctions on Tehran. Since then, Iran has stopped complying with the terms of the JCPOA and has steadily increased its uranium enrichment beyond the deal’s threshold, even as it has been negotiating with the US and its partners to try to renew the pact through 2021 and 2022.
Analysts say nuclear weapons require enrichment of around 90%, which Iran can achieve in just a few days. The lack of adequate monitoring and limited IAEA inspections in Iran have fueled fears that Tehran could move swiftly and covertly towards that mark.
But Iran’s new agreements with the IAEA appear to have deterred any further immediate action by the international community. Agence France-Presse, citing Western diplomats, reported on Monday that the United Nations will not proceed with a new resolution condemning Iran for its recent discovery of highly enriched uranium.
However, the US and Europe remain cautious.
“We expect, most importantly, that Iran will take swift and concrete action in accordance with the joint statement” issued over the weekend, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Monday. “Too many times in the past, we have seen Iran make vague promises that are never kept.”
Indeed, detailed inspections and unhindered access for IAEA inspectors will be critical in the coming weeks and months. Experts say Iran is at a pivotal point in its nuclear program.
“Iran can now break free and produce enough weapons-grade enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 12 days using only three advanced centrifuge cascades and half of its existing stockpile of 60% enriched uranium. It may be difficult for inspectors to detect this breach in time if Iran takes steps to delay inspectors’ access,” researchers at the Institute for Science and International Security and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said in a recent report, echoing public statements by U.S. officials. about Iran’s potential rapid path to nuclear weapons.
“Using the remaining stockpile of 60% enriched uranium and the nearly 20% enriched uranium stockpile, Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for an additional four nuclear units per month,” the researchers wrote. “Over the next two months, Iran could produce two more weapons-grade uranium from its stockpile of less than 5% enriched uranium, meaning Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for five nuclear units in one month and seven in three months.”
The assessments added fuel to a political battle between the administration and its Republican critics, who argue that the US should have continued intense economic pressure on Tehran rather than pursuing diplomacy.
“I think the American people have realized that our relationship with Iran cannot be cozy,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We cannot negotiate with them while they are trying to kill Americans. This is the wrong policy towards the US and Iran. We have to get it right, and Biden’s demonstration failed miserably.”
Talks aimed at reviving the JCPOA collapsed last year. Administration officials cited Iran’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA, its brutal crackdown on domestic protests, and military support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the main reasons for the collapse.
Tehran, for its part, said the US had refused to give assurances that a future administration would not follow Mr Trump’s lead and scrap the deal after Mr Biden leaves office.
Iranian-backed militias have also regularly attacked US troops stationed in Syria and Iraq, further escalating tensions between the two countries.
• This article is based in part on reports from the Telegraph Service.