UN watchdog confirms another Iranian breach of nuclear deal

BERLIN (AP) — The United Nations’ atomic watchdog agency confirmed Thursday that Iran has informed it that the country has begun installing equipment for the production of uranium metal, which would be another violation of the landmark nuclear deal with world powers.

Iran maintains its plans to conduct research and development on uranium metal production are part of its “declared aim to design an improved type of fuel,” the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said. Uranium metal can also be used for a nuclear bomb, however, and research on its production is specifically prohibited in the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed with world powers in 2015.

The ultimate goal of the deal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something Iran insists it does not want to do. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb, but nowhere near the amount it had before the nuclear deal was signed.

IAEA inspectors visited the Isfahan plant where Iran has said it plans to conduct the research on Jan. 10, and officials were informed by Tehran on Jan. 13 that “modification and installation of the relevant equipment for the mentioned R&D activities have been already started,” the agency said.

Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, repeated that in a tweet on Wednesday, adding that “natural uranium will be used to produce uranium metal in the first stage.”

He told Iran’s official news agency IRNA that the move will elevate Iran to the level of “progressive nations in production of new fuels.”

It was the latest in a string of violations of the JCPOA that Iran has undertaken since President Donald Trump pulled the United States unilaterally out of the deal in 2018, saying it needed to be re-negotiated.

Tehran has been using the violations to put pressure on the other signatories — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — to provide more incentives to Iran to offset crippling American sanctions reimposed after the U.S. exited the deal.

President-elect Joe Biden, who was vice president when the JCPOA was negotiated, has said he hopes to return the U.S. to the deal.

Britain, France and Germany said last week, however, that Iran “risks compromising” chances of diplomacy with Washington after Tehran announced another violation — that it was starting to enrich uranium to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

The foreign ministers of the three European nations said in a joint statement then that the Iranian activity “has no credible civil justification.” They said the enrichment was a clear violation of the deal and “further hollows out the agreement.”

Germany’s Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment Thursday, but the announcement on the production of uranium metal now further complicates trying to get Washington back on board.

Those working to save the deal also note that despite the violations, Iran continues to allow inspectors to access all sites in the country.

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Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.