Iran is enriching uranium at levels 'only countries making bombs are reaching,' UN's nuclear watchdog warns

Iran is enriching uranium at levels 'only countries making bombs are reaching,' UN's nuclear watchdog warns
Rafael Grossi, director general of the IAEA, speaks during an interview in Vienna, Austria, on April 14, 2021.Georges Schneider/Getty Images
  • The head of the UN's nuclear watchdog raised alarms about Iran's uranium enrichment.
  • Rafael Grossi told the Financial Times it's at a level "only countries making bombs are reaching."
  • "You cannot put the genie back into the bottle," Grossi warned.

Iran is enriching uranium up to purity levels that "only countries making bombs are reaching," the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog warned in an interview with the Financial Times.

"A country enriching at 60% is a very serious thing - only countries making bombs are reaching this level," Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the Times.

"Sixty percent is almost weapons grade, commercial enrichment is 2, 3 [percent]," Grossi said. "This is a degree that requires a vigilant eye."
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Under the 2015 nuclear deal, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran agreed to limit uranium enrichment to 3.67%.

Then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018, reimposing sanctions on Iran. The decision to pull out of the deal, combined with the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran, pushed tensions between Washington and Tehran to historic heights.

Iran remained in compliance with the deal until roughly a year after Trump withdrew, but then gradually began to take steps away from it.
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After Trump in January 2020 ordered a drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran's top general, the Iranian government effectively abandoned the JCPOA altogether. The fallout from the dismantling of the deal and the Soleimani strike sparked fears of a new war in the Middle East, though both sides ultimately stepped back from a broader confrontation.

In April 2021, Iran announced it was enriching uranium up to 60%. Weapons-grade levels are close to 90%. Iran has also developed more advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium more rapidly. "You cannot put the genie back into the bottle - once you know how to do stuff, you know, and the only way to check this is through verification," Grossi told the Times. "The Iranian programme has grown, become more sophisticated so the linear return to 2015 is no longer possible. What you can do is keep their activities below the parameters of 2015."
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President Joe Biden has made reviving the JCPOA, which was negotiated when he was vice president in the Obama administration, a top priority. The JCPOA was designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iran has consistently said it doesn't have ambitions of developing a nuclear weapon. But France, Germany, and the UK, all signatories of the JCPOA, last month said that Iran had "no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level."

An annual threat assessment released by the US intelligence community last month, however, said that "Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device."
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At the moment, US and Iranian diplomats are engaged in indirect talks in Vienna - with the help of European intermediaries - aimed at restoring the JCPOA. Iran has insisted that the US must lift sanctions before it fully returns to the deal. But the Biden administration has maintained it will not provide sanctions relief until Iran shows that it's once again complying with the terms of the 2015 agreement.

The general aim of the Vienna talks is to reach an agreement that would see both countries return to compliance with the JCPOA simultaneously. Though disagreements remain, all the involved parties have said the talks have shown positive signs.

Iran this week agreed to a one-month extension of limited inspections of its nuclear activities by the IAEA, providing a boost to the Vienna talks. Negotiators in Vienna began a fifth and potentially final round of the talks on Tuesday.
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