US warns Iran could be positioning for ‘rapid nuclear breakout’
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US warns Iran could be positioning for ‘rapid nuclear breakout’

Pompeo urges international community to step up pressure after Tehran resumes enrichment; EU expresses ‘deep concern’ over cancellation of IAEA inspector’s accreditation

Iranian technicians working at a facility producing uranium fuel for a planned heavy water nuclear reactor, outside Isfahan, in 2009. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
Iranian technicians working at a facility producing uranium fuel for a planned heavy water nuclear reactor, outside Isfahan, in 2009. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

The United States on Thursday called for “serious steps” to be taken after Iran resumed uranium enrichment at its underground Fordo plant in a new step back from its commitments under a 2015 nuclear deal.

“Iran’s expansion of proliferation-sensitive activities raises concerns that Iran is positioning itself to have the option of a rapid nuclear breakout,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“It is now time for all nations to reject this regime’s nuclear extortion and take serious steps to increase pressure.”

Iran resumed uranium enrichment at its underground Fordo plant south of Tehran on Thursday in a new step back from its commitments under a landmark 2015 nuclear deal. Engineers began feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into the plant’s mothballed enrichment centrifuges in “the first minutes of Thursday,” the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization said.

The suspension of uranium enrichment at the long secret plant was one of the restrictions Iran had agreed to on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of UN sanctions.

In this file photo taken on May 31, 2019 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses a joint press conference with the German Foreign Minister after a meeting at Villa Borsig in north Berlin. (Odd ANDERSEN / AFP)

Iran’s announcement that it would resume enrichment at the Fordo plant from midnight (2030 GMT Wednesday) had drawn a chorus of concern from the remaining parties to the troubled agreement.

The EU said Thursday it was “deeply concerned” by an incident involving an inspector with the UN’s nuclear watchdog last week in Iran which led to her having her accreditation canceled.

In a statement delivered to a special meeting of the governing body of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an EU representative said: “The EU is… deeply concerned by the incident concerning one IAEA inspector.”

“We understand that the incident was resolved and call upon Iran to ensure that no such incidents occur in the future,” the statement said.

Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of capital Tehran, Iran, April, 9, 2007. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/ AP/File)

Reiterating the EU’s “full confidence in the inspectorate’s professionalism and impartiality,” the statement called “upon Iran to ensure that IAEA inspectors can perform their duties in line with its legally binding safeguards agreement.”

Iran said Thursday it had canceled the inspector’s accreditation after she triggered an alarm last week at the entrance to the Natanz uranium enrichment plant.

The alarm during a check at the entrance gate to the plant in central Iran had raised concerns that she could be carrying a “suspect product” on her, the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization said in a statement posted online.

As a result, she was denied entry, it added, without specifying whether or not anything had been found in her possession.

Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia have been trying to salvage the hard-won deal since Washington abandoned it in May last year and reimposed crippling unilateral sanctions.

They say Iran’s phased suspension of its obligations under the deal since May makes that more difficult.

The resumption of enrichment at Fordo is Iran’s fourth move away from the deal.

Uranium enrichment is the sensitive process that produces fuel for nuclear power plants but also, in highly extended form, the fissile core for a warhead.

Iran is now enriching uranium to 4.5 percent, exceeding the 3.67% limit set by the 2015 deal but less than the 20% level it had previously operated to and far less than the 90% level required for a warhead.

However, once Iran reaches 20% purity it is a relatively short technical jump to reach 90% enrichment.

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