UN watchdog says Iran plans to ramp up uranium enrichment


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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iran plans to install two new advanced centrifuge cascades that will allow Tehran to rapidly enrich more uranium, the UN nuclear watchdog said on Thursday, the latest escalation in deadlock over the country’s atomic program.

The decision to add the two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges to its underground Natanz nuclear facility comes as countries at an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Vienna voted Wednesday night to censor the Iran. The rebuke relates to what the watchdog calls Iran’s failure to provide “credible information” about man-made nuclear material found at three undeclared sites in the country.

But even before the vote, Iran shut down two devices the IAEA uses to monitor enrichment at Natanz. Iranian officials have also threatened to take more action amid a years-long crisis that threatens to spill over into new attacks.

The IAEA said on Thursday that its director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, told its members that Iran had informed the agency that it planned to install two new IR-6 cascades at Natanz. A cascade is a series of centrifuges linked together to rapidly spin uranium gas to enrich it.

An IR-6 centrifuge spins uranium 10 times faster than the first-generation centrifuges Iran was once restricted to under its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. In February, Iran had already spun a cascade of IR-6s at its underground facility in Fordo, according to the IAEA.

At Natanz, located about 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Tehran, Iran earlier announced plans to install a cascade of IR-6s. The IAEA said it “verified” the ongoing installation of this cascade on Monday, when the two newly promised new cascades had not yet started.

Iran and world powers agreed to the nuclear deal in 2015, which saw Tehran drastically limit its uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled America out of the deal, increasing tensions throughout the Greater Middle East and triggering a series of attacks and incidents.

Talks in Vienna over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal have stalled since April. Since the collapse of the deal, Iran has been using advanced centrifuges and has a rapidly growing stockpile of enriched uranium.

Non-proliferation experts warn that Iran has sufficiently enriched up to 60% purity – a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90% – to make a nuclear weapon if it decides to do so.

Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, although UN experts and Western intelligence agencies say Iran had an organized military nuclear program until 2003.

Building a nuclear bomb would take Iran even longer if it pursued a weapon, analysts say, though they warn Tehran’s advances make the program more dangerous. Israel has threatened in the past to carry out a preemptive strike to stop Iran – and is already suspected in a string of recent murders targeting Iranian officials.

Iran already has footage from IAEA surveillance cameras since February 2021 as a pressure tactic to restore the atomic accord.

The no-confidence resolution at the IAEA meeting in Vienna, sponsored by Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, passed with the support of 30 of the 35 governors. Russia and China voted against, Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov wrote on Twitter. India, Libya and Pakistan abstained.

After the vote, a joint statement from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States said that the censorship “sends an unambiguous message to Iran that it must respect its obligations in terms of warranties and provide technically credible clarification of outstanding warranty issues”.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry meanwhile criticized the censorship as a “political, incorrect and unconstructive action”.

An Iranian official had previously warned IAEA officials that Tehran was now considering taking “other measures” as well.

“We hope they will come to their senses and respond to Iran’s cooperation with cooperation,” said Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. “It is not acceptable for them to display inappropriate behavior while Iran continues to cooperate.”

On Wednesday evening, a drone exploded in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil in its Kurdish region, lightly injuring three people and damaging cars and a nearby restaurant, officials said. Although no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, Iran has targeted Erbil in the past amid regional tensions.

Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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