IAEA chief: Iran’s uranium enrichment now at levels of ‘countries making bombs’

Head of UN nuclear watchdog urges tight monitoring, warns that even if 2015 pact is revived Iranian program cannot be rolled back to previous status

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), during a press conference at the agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria on May 24, 2021. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), during a press conference at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria on May 24, 2021. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

The head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog has said Iran is enriching uranium to levels that only countries seeking to make atomic weapons reach, and that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program can no longer be returned to where it stood when a landmark 2015 deal was struck with world powers.

“A country enriching at 60 percent is a very serious thing — only countries making bombs are reaching this level,” International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said in an interview with the Financial Times published on Wednesday and cited by the Reuters News Agency.

“Sixty percent is almost weapons-grade, commercial enrichment is 2, 3 [percent],” he said. “This is a degree that requires a vigilant eye.”

Though Grossi conceded that Iran has the right to develop its nuclear program, he warned of the consequences of it going too far.

“You cannot put the genie back into the bottle — once you know how to do stuff, you know, and the only way to check this is through verification,” he said, referring to checks by UN monitors.

With the sophistication that Iran has achieved, “you want a really strong, very sturdy verification system,” he said.

The flag of Iran is seen in front of the Headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2021. (Florian Schroetter/AP)

Grossi’s remarks came as world powers resumed talks with Iran to save the 2015 nuclear agreement that limited the Iranian nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. The US has since pulled out of the pact, applying sanctions, after which Iran began to publicly renege on its own commitment to the deal.

Iran’s violations since the US withdrawal from the deal include a significant increase in the purity and quantity of uranium it has been enriching, effectively reducing the so-called breakout time to produce an atomic bomb. Iran says it does not want to build an atomic bomb, insisting that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.

Grossi predicted that even if the nuclear deal is revived, it will not be possible to return Iran’s program to its 2015 state because it has advanced so much.

“The Iranian program has grown, become more sophisticated so the linear return to 2015 is no longer possible,” Grossi said. “What you are able to do is keep their activities below the parameters of 2015.”

In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, Iran. (IRIB via AP)

On Tuesday World powers opened a fifth round of talks with Iran aimed at bringing the US back into the nuclear deal, with both sides expressing hope that it might be the final series of negotiations.

The talks in Vienna came a day after the IAEA struck a last-minute agreement with Tehran for a one-month extension to a deal on surveillance cameras at Iran’s nuclear sites. The issue wasn’t directly related to the ongoing talks on the nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, but if Iran had not agreed it could have seriously complicated the discussions.

The US is not directly involved in the talks, but an American delegation headed by US President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, has been in the Austrian capital. Representatives from the other powers involved — Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China — have shuttled between the Americans and the Iranians to facilitate indirect talks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his office in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. (Haim Zach / GPO)

In 2018, then-president Donald Trump pulled the US out of the agreement unilaterally, saying it was not broad enough and needed to be renegotiated. As part of a “maximum pressure” campaign, Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran in an effort to bring Tehran back to the table.

The sanctions crippled Iran’s economy, but the Iranian government refused to renegotiate and instead retaliated by slowly and steadily breaking the restrictions on its nuclear activities laid out in the JCPOA. The moves were designed to pressure the other parties involved, thus far unsuccessfully, to come up with incentives to offset the US sanctions.

Biden, who was vice president when the original deal was negotiated, has said he wants the US to rejoin but that Iran has to return to complete compliance. Iran has insisted that all American sanctions imposed under Trump be dropped, including measures that were taken in response to non-nuclear issues.

In Jerusalem on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the decision to reengage with the Iranians and said the US has kept Israel and other partners informed throughout the process. Israel, a close ally, has opposed efforts to revive the nuclear deal, saying it does not have adequate protection to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Israel has hinted it could act alone in launching a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Despite Iran’s violations of the JCPOA, the other nations involved have stressed that the agreement was still important as it allowed International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to continue their surveillance of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The continuity of that surveillance was threatened until the agreement negotiated by the IAEA with Iran on Monday.

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