Abu Dhabi, UAE
Uranium particles enriched to near-bomb levels have been found at an Iranian nuclear facility, according to the UN’s nuclear watchdog, while the US warned Tehran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb was accelerating.
In a limited report seen by CNN, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that uranium particles enriched to 83.7% purity – which is close to the 90% enrichment levels required to make a nuclear bomb – had been found in the Iranian Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), an underground nuclear facility about 20 miles northeast of the city of Qom.
The report says that the IAEA took environmental samples at the Fordow plant in January, which revealed the presence of highly enriched uranium particles with a purity of 83.7%.
The IAEA subsequently informed Iran that these findings were “not consistent with the level of enrichment at the Fordow plant as stated by Iran and requested that Iran clarify the origin of these particles,” the report added.
According to the confidential IAEA report, Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60% had also grown from 25.2 kg to 87.5 kg since the last quarterly report.
The IAEA report said talks with Iran to clarify the matter are ongoing, noting that “these events clearly indicate the IAEA’s ability to detect and to report.”
In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian did not immediately respond to a question about reports of the enrichment.
Amir-Abdollahian said IAEA Deputy Director General Massimo Aparo has visited Iran twice in recent weeks and IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has been invited to visit the country.
“We have a roadmap with the IAEA. And on two occasions, Mr. [Massimo] Aparo, Mr. [Rafael] Grossi’s deputy has come to Iran in recent weeks and we have had constructive and productive negotiations. And we have also invited Mr. Grossi to visit Iran soon,” Amir-Abdollahian told CNN. “That’s why our relationship with the IAEA is on the right, natural path.”
Last year, Iran removed all IAEA equipment previously installed for surveillance and monitoring activities related to the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The move had “adverse implications for the IAEA’s ability to provide assurance about the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” the IAEA report said.
A spokesman for the US State Department said on Tuesday that the IAEA report may represent a “very serious development”.
“We are in close contact with our allies and partners in Europe and the region as we await further details from the IAEA on this potentially very serious development,” the spokesperson added.
Deputy Defense Secretary for Policy Colin Kahl said on Tuesday that “Iran’s nuclear progress since” the Trump administration pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal “has been remarkable,” adding that in 2018, when the US pulled out, “it would have taken Iran has about 12 months to produce one fissile, one bomb worth of fissile material.”
“Now it would take about 12 days,” he said.
More than a year of indirect negotiations between the US and Iran to try to restore the 2015 nuclear deal fell through in September 2022. Tensions between the two countries only worsened after Iran cracked down on nationwide protests at home, and when Tehran provided Russia with drones in the country. the war in Ukraine.
Kahl said Tuesday that the deal is “on ice.”