Iran has further increased its total stockpile of uranium, UN nuclear watchdog report says

VIENNA (AP) — Iran has further increased its total stockpile of uranium, according to a report by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog seen by The Associated Press on Monday, and continues to bar several of the most seasoned inspectors from monitoring its nuclear program.

The International Atomic Energy Agency also said in a second confidential report, distributed to member states, that Tehran made no progress in explaining the presence of manmade uranium particles found at two locations.

The IAEA estimated in its quarterly report that as of Feb. 10, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was at 5,525.5 kilograms (about 12,182 pounds), an increase of 1,038.7 kilograms (2,289 pounds) since the last quarterly report in November 2023. It also said that according to its assessment, Iran has an estimated 121.5 kilograms (267.8 pounds) of uranium enriched up to 60% purity, which represents a decrease of 6.8 kilograms (14.9 pounds) since the last report in November 2023.

The decrease is the result of Iran having diluted some of its 60% enriched uranium in recent weeks with lower-grade material.

According to the IAEA’s definition, around 42 kilograms (92.5 pounds) of uranium enriched to 60% is the amount at which creating one atomic weapon is theoretically possible. The 60% purity is just a short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

Between June and November last year, Iran slowed down the enrichment to 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) per month, but then increased the rate again to 9 kilograms (19.8 pounds) at the end of the year, the IAEA reported.

Under the original nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, Iran was allowed to enrich uranium only up to 3.67% purity, maintain a stockpile of uranium of 300 kilograms (661 pounds), and use only very basic IR-1 centrifuges, machines that spin uranium gas at high speed for enrichment purposes, in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. U.N. inspectors were tasked with monitoring the program.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the accord, saying he would negotiate a stronger deal, but that didn’t happen. Iran began breaking the terms of the deal a year later.

U.S. President Joe Biden said he was willing to re-enter a nuclear deal with Iran, but formal talks to try to find a roadmap to restart the deal collapsed in August 2022. In the meantime, global political circumstances have changed and tensions in the Middle East have increased significantly, making nuclear diplomacy with Iran more complicated.

Iran has long denied ever seeking nuclear weapons and continues to insist that its nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes, such as for energy or medicine. But the IAEA’s director-general warned last year that Tehran has enough enriched uranium for “several” nuclear bombs if it chose to build them. Iran would likely still need months to build a nuclear weapon, non-proliferation experts say.

In the second report, the IAEA said Iran's government has not responded to the nuclear watchdog's request about the origin and current location of manmade uranium particles found at two locations that Tehran has failed to declare as potential nuclear sites, named Varamin and Turquzabad.

The IAEA has accused Iran of stonewalling such an investigation over the past five years. However, Tehran made some progress by providing “a possible explanation” for the undeclared uranium particles for another location called Marivan in 2023. Western officials have suggested the so-called safeguards probe of the undeclared sites could confirm longstanding suspicions that Iran had a nuclear weapons program up until 2003.

The report also said there was no progress thus far in reinstalling more monitoring equipment, including cameras, in June 2022. The IAEA stated their inspectors were allowed to “service the cameras at the workshops in Esfahan, but without providing access to the data recorded by those cameras.”

Since June 2022, the only recorded data is that of the cameras at the centrifuge workshop in Isfahan in May 2023 — although Iran has not provided the IAEA with access to this data.

Iran responded to criticism by the U.S., Britain, France and Germany on those issues by barring several of the IAEA’s most experienced inspectors from monitoring its nuclear program in September 2023.

In its current report, the IAEA said Tehran has not reconsidered its position and the watchdog’s head Rafael Grossi “deeply regrets” this decision.

“The Director General continues to strongly condemn Iran’s sudden withdrawal of the designations of several experienced agency inspectors," it said.

The report also said Iran’s nuclear chief Mohammad Eslami in late October 2023 reiterated that his country "was within its rights to de-designate the Agency inspectors.”

The 35-member IAEA Board of Governors had previously censured Iran for failing to cooperate fully with the agency. It is not yet clear whether the board, which is meeting all of next week in Vienna, will do so again.

The confidential reports come amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The White House promised to unveil new sanctions against Iran in the coming days in retaliation for its arms sales that it accused of bolstering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and threatening a “swift” and “severe” response if Tehran moves forward with selling ballistic missiles to Moscow.

The U.S. and Britain are also fighting increased attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels against cargo ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.