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UN Watchdog says Iran has again breached nuclear deal with step to fire up centrifuges

Cascade of gas centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium. (U.S. Department of Energy Archives/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The UN’s atomic watchdog says Iran has again breached its nuclear deal with major powers by firing up advanced uranium-enriching centrifuges installed underground at its Natanz site.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi told a press conference on November 18 that centrifuges in a buried part of the Natanz site, which the agency revealed in a report last week, were now operational.

Natanz is Iran’s main uranium-enrichment site and the one that sources for The New York Times said U.S. President Donald Trump recently asked for options on attacking.

The nuclear deal, which the United States withdrew from in 2018, states that Iran can only accumulate enriched uranium with first-generation IR-1 machines and that those are the only centrifuges it can operate at its underground plant at Natanz, apparently built to withstand aerial bombardment.

The IAEA report from last week showed Tehran had installed advanced equipment underground at Natanz, having moved them from an aboveground plant where it was already enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges in breach of the deal.

That report said Iran had not fed uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas, the feedstock for centrifuges, into that cascade.

Grossi said on November 18 that at the time of last week’s report, “they had not started operations…it is now happening.”

Addressing the IAEA board in Vienna, the U.S. envoy to the organization described Iran’s actions as “transparent attempts at extortion.”

“We have made clear they will neither resolve the current impasse nor bring Iran sanctions relief,” Ambassador Jackie Wolcot said.

The IAEA report said Iran had also begun installing a cascade of IR-4 centrifuges at the underground plant but not a planned third cascade of IR-6 machines. It is also operating 5,060 IR-1 machines at the underground plant.

Iran has breached many restrictions imposed by the 2015 deal on its atomic activities, including on the purity to which it enriches uranium and its stock of enriched uranium, citing the U.S. withdrawal as the reason even though other signatories to the agreement — Russia, France, Great Britain, China, and the European Union — insist the agreement is still valid and have urged Tehran to adhere to it.

On November 17, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran would be willing to return to full compliance with the nuclear deal if U.S. President-elect Joe Biden lifts crippling sanctions against the country.

Biden has said he would work with the other powers involved — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as the EU — to amend aspects of the agreement once Iran is back in compliance. But analysts have told RFE/RL that an immediate return to the deal is unlikely.

Washington has sought to ramp up pressure on Iran before Biden takes office, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo making the case that undoing the actions of the Trump administration would be “dangerous.”

Pompeo released a statement on November 18 arguing that the Trump administration’s moves had been “extraordinarily effective” in reducing the threat from the country.

The sanctions have slashed Iran’s revenue by hundreds of billions of dollars since the U.S. pullout in 2018, he said.

“Sanctions are part of the pressures creating a new Middle East, bringing together countries that suffer the consequences of Iran’s violence and seek a region more peaceful and stable than before,” he said, adding: “Reducing that pressure is a dangerous choice, bound to weaken new partnerships for peace in the region and strengthen only the Islamic republic.”

Meanwhile, the Treasury and State departments announced they had targeted a leading Iranian charity, the Mostazafan Foundation, and dozens of its affiliates.

“While [it] is ostensibly a charitable organization charged with providing benefits to the poor and oppressed, its holdings are expropriated from the Iranian people and are used by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to enrich his office, reward his political allies, and persecute the regime’s enemies,” Treasury said in a statement.

Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi is also targeted for playing “a central role in the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses against Iranian citizens.”