Iran Sticking to Nuclear Deal as EU Vies to Prevent Its Collapse
(Bloomberg) -- Nuclear inspectors reported Iran continued adhering to its 2015 accord with world powers, giving European nations room to pursue their troubled efforts to prevent a total collapse of a pact facing intensifying U.S. pressure.
International Atomic Energy Agency monitors said Iran’s inventories of enriched uranium and heavy water remained below the thresholds allowed under the 2015 agreement, according to a restricted report seen by Bloomberg News.
It’s the 15th consecutive quarterly report showing that Iran has observed its obligations, and comes amid growing concerns that the Trump administration’s campaign to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East could spill into war.
The IAEA conducted snap inspections “to all the sites and locations in Iran which it needed to visit,” read the 6-page IAEA report that was circulated Thursday among diplomats in Vienna. “Throughout the reporting period, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile has not exceeded” the maximum permitted 300 kilograms, it said.
Iran’s president signaled May 8 that stockpiles of nuclear material would soon exceed limits after the U.S. revoked waivers permitting it to be shipped abroad. That declaration was made on the one-year anniversary of the U.S. decision to unilaterally exit the nuclear accord and reimpose sanctions, including on vital oil exports. With its economy plunging into recession, Iran said it will violate even more sensitive provisions of the deal unless European signatories deliver the financial relief offered in return for moderating its nuclear program.
Tensions have since spiked further after the U.S. accelerated the deployment of a carrier strike group to the Gulf to counter unspecified Iranian threats, suggested without providing proof that Iran and its proxies were to blame for attacks on ships in the crucial waterway as well as a Saudi oil pipeline, and sent more troops to the region.
President Donald Trump has made confronting Iran a cornerstone of his foreign policy and is squeezing its economy to force it to roll back its ballistic missile program and support for groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which the U.S. deems a terrorist organization.
The White House is counting on Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies to form a united front to contain Iran, prompting a series of meetings involving regional leaders in the kingdom this week.
The stockpile of low-enriched uranium rose 7%, to 174 kilograms (384 pounds), the IAEA said. Its inventory of heavy-water was unchanged at 125 metric tons, less than the 130 metric tons permitted by the agreement.
Iran has been enriching uranium well below capacity and should be able to boost its rate of production, according to a senior diplomat with knowledge of Iran’s program. The country said May 22 it would ramp up the rate at which it produces the material by four times. That implies accumulating as much as 18 kilograms of new low-enriched uranium a month rather than some 4 to 4.5 kilograms previously, the person said.
The stored uranium is still well short of what would be needed to construct a bomb, were the material to be further enriched, and if Iran made the decision to pursue weapons. Iran had previously accumulated enough of the heavy metal to construct more than a dozen weapons before the agreement forced it to eliminate some 97% of its stockpile. Tehran says its nuclear program is solely for civilian energy and medical use.
Heavy water, so named because it contains extra hydrogen atoms, can moderate neutrons inside a nuclear reactor or act as a tracer in medical applications. Iran had been shipping excess inventory to Oman before the U.S. blocked that activity. IAEA inspectors continued to confirm Iran’s Arak reactor, for which the heavy water production was originally intended, remained disabled as agreed under the 2015 accord. Tehran says it could reconstitute that project in the third quarter without sanctions relief.
The IAEA report follows U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s statement on Wednesday in the United Arab Emirates that a violation of the deal would show Iranians haven’t “constrained their continuing desire to have nuclear weapons.” The Trump administration has threatened to sanction Europeans for trying to hold the atomic pact together via a non-dollar-denominated financial channel.
Critically, the IAEA report said Iran continued allowing access to sites under what its director general has called “the most robust verification system in existence anywhere.” Inspectors conducted a record number of surprise visits in Iran last year.
Iran has also stuck to the number of centrifuges -- the supersonic spinning machines that separate uranium isotopes -- allowed for enrichment. Iran is holding “technical discussions” about new generations of more powerful centrifuges that are undergoing testing.
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