UN inspectors confirm ‘near nuclear weapon-grade’ uranium particles found in Iran

UN inspectors confirm ‘near nuclear weapon-grade’ uranium particles found in Iran
CIA director Bill Burns during a weekend interview on CBS News during which he discussed latest thoughts on Iran's nuclear programme. / screengrab
By bne IntelIiNews March 1, 2023

Confirmation that uranium particles enriched to 83.7%-purity—just short of weapons-grade 90%-purity—have been discovered at Iranian nuclear development facilities will pressure Western powers to censure Iran at a board meeting of a nuclear watchdog next week.

It is the watchdog, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), that confirmed the discovery in its quarterly report to its governing board.

Iran has vehemently denied enriching uranium to anything above 60%-purity. Tehran said the particles of 83.7% purity were simply a logical side-effect of an enrichment transition period “at the time of commissioning the process of [60%] product (November 2022)” or resulted from a process for “replacing a feed cylinder”.

However, the IAEA is not reassured. Its inspectors have made it clear that their faith in Iran’s statements on such matters, which are not backed up with corroborative evidence, is at an all-time low.

Israel continues to send out signals that it would be prepared to mount a military attack on Iranian nuclear development facilities, and would like to see UN “snapback” sanctions reimposed on Tehran in response to the progressing of its nuclear programme.

In their quarterly report, IAEA officials also pointed out that restrictions to which Iran now subjects the watchdog inspectors meant that providing a full inventory or history of Iran’s uranium enrichment process would take a substantial amount of time.

Iran continues to insist it has no intention of developing a nuclear weapon and that its nuclear programme will remain entirely civilian in nature.

And at the weekend, CIA director Bill Burns reiterated that US intelligence did not have evidence that Iran had taken a decision to weaponise uranium.

"To the best of our knowledge, we don't believe that the Supreme Leader in Iran has yet made a decision to resume the weaponisation programme that we judge that they suspended or stopped at the end of 2003," Burns told Face the Nation on CBS News, adding: "But the other two legs of the stool, meaning enrichment programmes, they've obviously advanced very far." 

Burns did concede, nevertheless, that Iran's nuclear enrichment was more advanced than previously known and "if they chose to cross that line," Tehran would only need a "matter of weeks" to enrich uranium capable of powering a nuclear weapon.

Noting Tehran has also been advancing its missile systems, Burns said Iran was now nearing the threshold of being a nuclear state, but, crucially, it had not resumed the weaponisation.

Under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or nuclear deal, Iran committed to limit uranium enrichment to 3.67%-purity, a level required to fuel nuclear power plants. In exchange, the major powers agreed to lift economic sanctions on Iran.  But former US president Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the multilateral JCPOA in May 2018.

It is since the US exit from the deal and reimposition of heavy US sanctions that Tehran has taken its enrichment levels up to 60%-purity. There is no known civilian use for uranium of such a purity.