UN nuclear chief meets with Iranians amid enrichment concerns

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog met with officials in Iran on Saturday, days after it emerged that the country had enriched uranium particles to near weapons-grade levels, sparking renewed concern over long-controversial nuclear program.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, declined to comment on his discussions during a news conference with the head of Iran’s nuclear program, saying the delegation’s work was still ongoing.

“It’s an atmosphere of work, honesty and cooperation,” Grossi said. He was expected to speak to reporters again after returning to Vienna later on Saturday.

Earlier this week, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency reported that particles of uranium enriched to 83.7% — slightly less than weapons grade — had been found at Iran’s underground Ford nuclear site.

The IAEA’s confidential quarterly report, which was sent to member states on Tuesday, comes amid heightened tensions amid months of anti-government protests in Iran and Western anger over the export of attack drones to Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.

The IAEA report said inspectors found in January that two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges at Ford’s Iranian facility were configured in a way that was “significantly different” from what was previously reported. The next day, the IAEA took samples that showed particles with a purity of up to 83.7%, the report said.

The IAEA report spoke only of “particles,” suggesting that Iran is not building up a stockpile of uranium enriched above 60%, the level at which it has been enriching for some time. However, the agency also said in its report that it would “further increase the frequency and intensity of the agency’s inspection activities” at Fordo after the opening.

Iran has sought to present any detection of highly enriched uranium particles as a momentary side effect of trying to produce a final product of 60% purity. However, experts say that such a large difference in purity, even at the atomic level, would strike inspectors as suspicious.

The head of Iran’s nuclear program, Mohammad Eslami, acknowledged the IAEA report’s findings at a news conference with Grossi, but said they did not account for 84% of enrichment. He said the “ambiguity” of the findings had been resolved.

Non-proliferation experts say Tehran does not use uranium enriched to 60% for civilian purposes. A stockpile of material enriched to 90%, the level required for weapons, could quickly be used to produce an atomic bomb if Iran wanted to.

Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers capped Tehran’s uranium stockpile and enrichment at 3.67%, enough to power a nuclear power plant.

The US unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, reimposing tough sanctions on Iran, which then began openly violating the deal’s restrictions. Efforts by the Biden administration, European countries and Iran to agree on the return of the agreement reached an impasse last summer.

Iran has long denied that it ever sought nuclear weapons and maintains that its program is peaceful, but it is widely believed to have had a nuclear weapons program before 2003.

Grossi’s last visit to Iran was in March 2022.

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