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Iran said readying to ratchet up enrichment at Natanz, violating nuke deal

Iran has reportedly been moving to boost uranium enrichment at the Natanz nuclear facility, the site of a mysterious blast last month that allegedly targeted advanced centrifuges.

A document from the International Atomic Energy Agency cited by the Bloomberg news agency said new advanced centrifuges were being moved from a pilot facility to a new area at Natanz.

Piping has been installed to accommodate higher volumes of enriched material produced by three new cascades, made up of 164 centrifuges each, the document stated.

The restricted IAEA document was circulated among diplomats last month, the report said. The report seemed to indicate the document was written after the July 2 blast at the facility.

The move appears to violate the 2015 nuclear agreement Iran signed with world powers, and may show that the alleged sabotage at the plant last month, widely attributed to Israel or the US, did not significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program.

Citing officials familiar with the developments, Bloomberg said that IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi sent a top monitor for a meetings in Tehran ahead of his upcoming sit-down on Friday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Vienna.

So far, Iran has agreed to let monitors enter the sites they are interested in reviewing, but they have also asked the IAEA to define the scope of its investigation, which both Washington and the agency see as a red line.

Grossi’s public meeting with Pompeo will be their second since the Argentine diplomat made his first official visit as new IAEA director to Washington in February.

The US is currently engaged in a bid to extend an arms embargo against Iran.

The ban on selling weapons to Iran is set to be progressively eased from October under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which blessed the Iran nuclear deal to which world powers agreed in July 2015.

The European Union has said it will continue to enforce its own embargo against Iran after the lifting of the first UN embargo.

Under the accord officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran committed to limiting its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

But the JCPOA has been on life-support since the US withdrew from it and reimposed unilateral sanctions in 2018.

Iran has since taken small but escalatory steps away from compliance with the agreement as it presses for the sanctions relief it was promised. Some of those steps are believed to have been at the Natanz nuclear site, which was hit in an apparent sabotage attack last month.

The blast, which foreign media reports have attributed to Israel or the US and is said by some experts to have significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program, damaged an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant.

The latest Bloomberg report indicated that those conclusions may have been exaggerated.

Regardless, an Iranian news website late last month named the suspect that authorities are claiming caused the explosion at Natanz.

According to a report by “Didban Iran” (“Iran Watch”), the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has concluded that the instigator of the blast was Ershad Karimi, a contractor at the site who owns a company, MEHR, that supplies precision measuring equipment.

According to a New York Times report, the blast was most likely the result of a bomb planted at the facility, potentially at a strategic gas line. The report did not rule out the possibility that a cyberattack was used to cause a malfunction that led to the explosion.

The July 2 Natanz explosion was one of a series of mysterious blasts at Iranian strategic sites in recent weeks, which have been largely attributed to either Washington, Jerusalem, or both.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

Source: TOI