‘Fatal blow’: Iran plan to remove cameras from nuclear sites prompts alarm

In response to censure of Iran over unexplained nuclear material, Tehran ramps up centrifuge production

<p>The reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran</p>

The reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran

Chances for a breakthrough in the year-long attempt to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal have taken a dramatic turn for the worse, with a senior inspector warning that international oversight of Iran’s atomic technology programme was on the verge of being curtailed.

The world’s top nuclear watchdog on Thursday warned that Iran was planning to cut off dozens of cameras monitoring sensitive nuclear sites, and Tehran has vowed to speed up production and use of advanced machines for the production of enriched uranium that can be used to create atomic bombs.

The escalations came after the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, prodded by western nations, censured Iran on Wednesday for failing to answer questions about trace enriched uranium particles found by inspectors in Iran in recent years.

IAEA director-general Rafael Mariano Grossi called the impending removal of the cameras “a fatal blow” to more than a year of on-and-off talks aimed at restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal that put limits on Iran’s nuclear technology programme in exchange for relief from international sanctions.

Iran and world powers have been struggling to revive the deal after it was violated by former US President Donald Trump.

“We are in a very tense situation with the negotiations over the JCPOA at a low ebb,” said Mr Grossi, who has engaged in months of diplomacy in an effort to restore the JCPOA. “Now we are adding this to the picture; as you can see it’s not a very nice one.”

Iran announced even before the vote that it would shut down at least two cameras in response to the impending censure, posting video showing technicians turning the monitoring devices off. Sites that would lose up to 27 cameras include facilities that enrich uranium in the cities of Natanz and Isfahan, Mr Grossi said.

“When we lose this, then it’s anybody’s guess,” where Iran’s nuclear programme was headed, Mr Grossi said.

Iran has over the decades mastered the process of turning raw uranium ore into purified fissile material. Uranium enriched to 5 per cent purity can be used to power an electric plant. When enriched to levels of 90 per cent or higher, uranium can be used to build a nuclear warhead.

Iran will also speed up production and installation of advanced centrifuges used to enrich uranium, according to an unnamed source cited by state media. Iran has described its actions as "reciprocal” measures in response to the IAEA censure.

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks next to a surveillance camera during a press conference in Vienna

The JCPOA, forged during the administration of US President Barack Obama, was abandoned in 2018 by Mr Trump, who upped sanctions and pressure on Tehran. Iran responded by slowly expanding its nuclear programme past the limits set by the JCPOA.

While tightened sanctions hurt Iran’s economy and trigger political unrest, the country’s clerical regime appears to believe it has the upper hand domestically. Internationally, it has tightened energy and security cooperation with Russia and China. The veto-wielding permanent UN Security Council members voted against the western-backed resolution at the IAEA board of governors on Wednesday.

India and Pakistan, both nuclear weapons powers, as well as Libya, abstained on the vote.

Beijing China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian blamed the US for the impasse. “As the originator of the Iranian nuclear crisis, the US should thoroughly correct its mistakes, respond positively to the Iranian side’s legitimate concerns, promote the resumption of compliance negotiations and reach an agreement as soon as possible,” he was quoted as saying on Thursday.

Iran’s rivals Saudi Arabia and Israel, an undeclared nuclear weapons power, both publicly hailed the IAEA board’s censure of Tehran.

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