Iran resumes uranium enrichment after blocking visit by UN inspector
Iran injected uranium gas into centrifuges at its underground Fordo nuclear complex yesterday, taking its most-significant step away from its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Tehran also acknowledged blocking an official from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from visiting its nuclear site at Natanz last week, the first known case of a United Nations inspector being blocked amid heightened tensions over its atomic programme. Iran's representative to the IAEA said Tehran had asked the agency never to send the inspector again, without elaborating on what happened.
These latest steps by Iran put additional pressure on Europe to offer Tehran a way to sell its crude oil abroad despite the US sanctions imposed on the country since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal over a year ago.
The gas injection began after midnight at Fordo, a facility built under a mountain north of the Shiite holy city of Qom, the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran said. A UN official from the IAEA witnessed the injection, it said. The centrifuges ultimately will begin enriching uranium up to 4.5pc, which is just beyond the limits of the nuclear deal, but nowhere near weapons-grade levels of 90pc.
Fordo's 1,044 centrifuges previously spun without uranium gas for enrichment under the deal, which saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. The deal had called for Fordo to become "a nuclear, physics and technology centre".
Iran acknowledged Fordo's existence in 2009 amid a major pressure campaign by Western powers over Tehran's nuclear programme. The West feared Iran could use its programme to build a nuclear weapon; Iran insists the programme is for peaceful purposes. Experts have suggested that the limits imposed under the 2015 deal, when obeyed, meant that Iran would need a year to gather enough material to build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so - a time known as a "breakout period".
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised Iran's decision to inject gas into the Fordo centrifuges. He made no reference to Mr Trump's decision to leave the deal in May 2018, sparking the crisis.
"Iran's expansion of proliferation-sensitive activities raises concerns that Iran is positioning itself to have the option of a rapid nuclear breakout," Mr Pompeo said. "It is now time for all nations to reject this regime's nuclear extortion and take serious steps to increase pressure."
Mr Pompeo did not elaborate on what those serious steps should be. The US earlier this week imposed sanctions on members of the inner circle of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.