Iran has announced an expansion of its nuclear enrichment programme, in a provocative response to a rebuke by the UN’s watchdog over the alleged existence of undeclared nuclear sites.
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said on Tuesday that it had added the underground Fordow facility to the list of locations where it was enriching uranium to the 60 per cent purity level, just below weapons grade.
This followed a resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board last week calling on Iran to co-operate over uranium traces found at three undeclared sites in the country.
“We had warned before that political pressure and resolutions would not make Iran change its approach,” Iran’s nuclear chief Mohammad Eslami said, referring to the IAEA statement. “For this reason, we started enriching uranium at Fordow.”
The escalation comes as Iran faces international criticism over the crackdown on protesters in the country, and the alleged sale of missiles and drones to Russia that are being used to attack Ukrainian cities.
Iran has always insisted its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful purposes, although experts say uranium enrichment to 60 per cent is a step away from weapons-grade levels of 90 per cent.
Tehran has also said that old allegations over its nuclear activities were all addressed in the nuclear accord it signed with the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China in 2015 and that those issues could not be reopened.
Iran’s past activities were glossed over as part of the deal that helped curb its nuclear programme in return for lifting most US sanctions.
But after the US, under then president Donald Trump, withdrew from the accord in 2018 and imposed tough sanctions, Iran rolled back its commitments without officially walking out of the deal. A year later it restarted enriching uranium towards 60 per cent while also installing advanced centrifuges. The 60 per cent level was reached in April 2021.
The IAEA said this month that Iran had an estimated 62.3kg of uranium enriched up to 60 per cent, an amount that has sparked alarm in western capitals.
US president Joe Biden has pursued a revival of the 2015 deal but indirect talks between Tehran and Washington, under EU mediation, have stalled since August. It was thought that the two sides could restart talks after the conclusion of this month’s US midterm elections.
Yet western diplomats in Tehran say sitting at the negotiating table with Iran has become next to impossible if the Islamic republic continues to violently suppress large anti-regime demonstrations. At least 305 protesters, including 41 children, have been killed during the protests, Amnesty International has said.
Western governments fear a revival of the nuclear deal now could strengthen the hand of Iran’s leadership, diplomats said, as it would include unfreezing billions of dollars of Iran’s assets overseas.