Inspectors: Iran producing uranium metal in violation of nuclear deal

WASHINGTON — The United Nations atomic agency said on Wednesday that Iran has started to produce uranium metal, marking the latest breach of the 2015 nuclear agreement by Tehran.

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors verified on Feb. 8 that Iran had produced a small amount of uranium metal at a nuclear plant in Isfahan, the agency’s spokesman Fredrik Dahl told NBC News in an email. In a report to member states, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi informed the agency’s member states about the development.

The material can be used to build the core of nuclear weapons and the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers expressly forbids the production of uranium metal or conducting research and development on uranium metallurgy for 15 years.

The production of uranium metal further complicates any potential diplomacy between Tehran and the new administration in Washington, at a moment when each government has staked out negotiating positions that put the onus on the other side to take the first conciliatory step.

Iran had notified the IAEA previously that it planned to take the step, prompting a warning from European governments against the move. The Europeans had said producing uranium metal was prohibited by the 2015 deal, that there was “no credible civilian use” for uranium metal and that it posed “potentially grave military implications.”

The 2015 deal between Iran and the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting international and U.S. economic sanctions.

Iran says it remains within the parameters of the 2015 agreement, arguing it was the United States that violated the deal by withdrawing from the pact entirely in 2018 and reimposing sanctions. Given that Iran is not seeing the benefit of sanctions relief as promised by the deal, Iranian officials say the government is within its legal rights under the accord not to comply with restrictions on its nuclear work.

Since former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the landmark nuclear agreement in 2018, Iran has gradually violated the terms of the deal, though it has not fully renounced the accords. Tehran has expanded its production of nuclear fuel, employed more advanced centrifuges and started to produce uranium enriched to 20 percent — placing it one technical step away from weapons-grade material.

Iran has said it is ready to return to abiding by the agreement only if the United States lifts sanctions that have crippled its economy. In recent months, Iran has increasingly pushed beyond the boundaries of the agreement in an apparent bid to build up its leverage in advance of possible negotiations with the Biden administration and other governments.

President Joe Biden has said he is ready to bring the United States back into the agreement, but only after Iran returns to compliance with its provisions.

State Department spokesman Ned Price did not address the IAEA’s findings directly but told reporters Wednesday that the administration continues “to urge Tehran to resume full compliance with the JCPOA.”

“We continue to do that because that for us, would open up the pathway for diplomacy, and we certainly hope to be able to pursue that pathway of diplomacy in order to resolve what we do consider to be an urgent challenge,” Price said.

Iran has warned it could impose restrictions on IAEA inspectors in the country on Feb. 21 if the United States does not lift economic sanctions, which would mark the most serious breach of the nuclear deal so far. The United States and European powers see access for the IAEA inspectors as a crucial element of the agreement.

Abigail Williams contributed.

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