Iran enriched record uranium stockpile amid Vienna talks

TEHERAN (BLOOMBERG) – Iran produced a record volume of highly enriched uranium that could quickly be turned into fuel for a nuclear weapon, underscoring the urgency with which diplomats are moving to restore an agreement that would rein in the Persian Gulf nation’s programme.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors circulated a confidential assessment of Iran’s atomic programme on Monday (May 31) as envoys hunkered down for an eighth week of negotiations in Vienna.

Diplomats are trying to orchestrate a United States return and Iranian compliance with a landmark nuclear agreement that curtailed Teheran’s production of nuclear fuel in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iran managed to produce 2.4kg of highly enriched uranium in the six weeks since saboteurs struck the country’s primary enrichment facility in Natanz, according to a 13-page restricted IAEA report seen by Bloomberg.

The April 11 attack prompted Iran to begin enriching uranium to levels of 60 per cent purity, just below the threshold normally used in bombs. Iran blamed Israel for the sabotage, while Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.

“The agency’s verification and monitoring activities have been affected as a result of Iran’s decision to stop implementation of its nuclear-related commitments,” read the report, which is the second to be published since Iran began to restrict some monitoring in February. Inspectors have lost access to key sites, including workshops where the machines that enrich uranium are made.

Over the last three months, Iran’s stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium more than tripled to 63kg, while its inventory of 5 per cent material rose 6 per cent to about 3,141kg. That is enough uranium to produce several bombs if Iran chose to enrich to weapons grade. The country says its programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes.

Negotiators in the Austrian capital are in what some say could be their final round of talks to revive the 2015 accord that former US President Donald Trump abandoned three years ago. A return to the deal would force Iran to cut production capacity and reduce its uranium stockpile to below 300kg of material enriched to 3.67 per cent until 2030. In return, Teheran’s government could resume oil exports and participate in the global economy.

Diplomats seeking a return to the accord are racing to do this before Iran holds presidential elections on June 18.

Iran has yet to provide clarification to IAEA investigators about the presence of decades-old uranium traces discovered at several sites, according to a second six-page IAEA report. Iran invited agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi to visit Teheran the week of June 21 to continue discussing the matter.

“The Director General is concerned that the technical discussions between the agency and Iran have not yielded the expected results and of the consequent lack of progress in clarifying safeguards issues,” read the report.

The IAEA’s 35-member board of governors convenes next week in the Austrian capital to discuss the reports.