Iran has accelerated enrichment of uranium, ‘worried’ IAEA chief says

Iran has followed through on a threat to accelerate its production of enriched uranium, the head of the UN atomic watchdog IAEA Yukiya Amano said. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 10 June 2019

Iran has accelerated enrichment of uranium, ‘worried’ IAEA chief says

  • IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said he 'hoped that ways can be found to reduce current tensions through dialogue’
  • Tensions between Washington and Tehran have worsened in recent weeks

VIENNA: Iran has followed through on a threat to accelerate its production of enriched uranium, the head of the UN atomic watchdog said on Monday, departing from his usual guarded language to say he was worried about increasing tension.

Recent weeks have seen US-Iranian confrontation sharply increase, a year after Washington abandoned an agreement between Iran and world powers to curb Tehran's nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international financial sanctions.

Washington tightened sanctions from the start of May, ordering all countries and companies to halt all imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.

It has also begun discussing military confrontation, dispatching extra troops to the region to counter what it describes as Iranian threats.

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Iran has responded with a threat to increase its enrichment of uranium, saying it was up to Europeans who still support the nuclear deal to save it by finding ways to ensure Tehran receives the economic benefits it was promised.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, whose agency is responsible for monitoring Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, said Iran was now producing more enriched uranium than before, but it was not clear when it might reach stockpile limits set in the pact.

"Yes, (the) production rate is increasing," he told a news conference when asked if enriched uranium production had accelerated since the agency's last quarterly report, which found Iran compliant with the nuclear deal as of May 20. He declined to say how much it had increased by.

Iran said last month it was still abiding by the deal but would quadruple its production of enriched uranium - a move that could take it out of compliance if stockpiles rise too far. It demanded European countries do more to shield it from sanctions.

On Monday, Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas became the most senior Western official to visit Iran since the new war of words erupted last month between Washington and Tehran.

"The situation in the region here is highly explosive and extremely serious," Maas told a news conference alongside Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. "A dangerous escalation of existing tensions can also lead to a military escalation."

Zarif blamed the US for the escalation.

"Reducing tension is only possible through stopping the economic war by America," he said. "Those who wage such wars cannot expect to remain safe."

Zarif said talks with Maas were "frank and serious". But he added: "Tehran will cooperate with EU signatories of the deal to save it."

Reduce tensions through dialogue
IAEA chief Amano said he was "worried about increasing tensions over the Iranian nuclear issue". He hoped "that ways can be found to reduce the current tensions through dialogue. It is essential that Iran fully implements its nuclear-related commitments" under the deal.

Washington's European allies opposed its decision last year to abandon the nuclear deal. They have promised to help Iran find other ways to trade, though with no success so far. All major European companies that had announced plans to invest in Iran have since called them off for fear of US punishment.

Iran says the Europeans have not done enough to provide it with alternative ways to trade. Maas acknowledged limits to how much help the European countries can provide.

"We want to fulfil our obligations," Maas said during his joint news conference with Zarif. "We cannot work miracles, but we will try to avert a failure" of the nuclear deal.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said: "So far, we have not seen practical and tangible steps from the Europeans to guarantee Iran's interests."

France, Britain and Germany have set up a special-purpose vehicle called Instex, designed to allow payments to Iran that would legally bypass sanctions. It has yet to be launched.

"This is an instrument of a new kind, so it's not straightforward to operationalise it," Maas told reporters. "But all the formal requirements are in place now, and so I'm assuming we'll be ready to use it in the foreseeable future."

Washington has denounced the European plans. Diplomats say the system is unlikely to have much impact on commercial trade with Iran but could be used for humanitarian transactions that are permitted under U.S. sanctions.

Washington says the nuclear deal should be expanded to cover other issues including Iran's missile programme and its role in wars in the region. European countries say they share those concerns, although they argue that it would be harder to address them without the nuclear deal in place.

Iran strongly opposes any effort to expand negotiations to cover other issues. Mousavi said as much: "The EU is not in a position to question Iran's issues beyond the nuclear deal."


Water-scarce Gulf states bank on desalination, at a cost

Updated 12 December 2019

Water-scarce Gulf states bank on desalination, at a cost

  • For Oman and other Gulf states dominated by vast deserts, obtaining fresh water from the sea comes at a high cost
  • In Sur, water for residents and businesses comes from a large desalination plant

SUR, OMAN: “We have water, and it’s the most important thing in a house,” says Abdullah Al-Harthi from the port city of Sur in Oman, a country that relies on desalination plants.
But for Oman and the other Gulf countries dominated by vast and scorching deserts, obtaining fresh water from the sea comes at a high financial and environmental cost.
In Sur, south of the capital Muscat, water for residents and businesses comes from a large desalination plant that serves some 600,000 people.
“Before, life was very difficult. We had wells, and water was delivered by trucks,” the 58-year-old told AFP. “Since the 1990s, water has come through pipes and we’ve had no cuts.”
But these benefits — relying on energy intensive processes that produce carbon emissions — do not come without a cost, particularly as global temperatures rise.
The United Nations says 2019 is on course to be one of the hottest three years on record.
And there is another impact: the desalination plants produce highly concentrated salt water, or brine, that is often dumped back into the ocean.
Researchers say more than 16,000 desalination plants around the globe produce more toxic sludge than freshwater.
For every liter of freshwater extracted from the sea or brackish water, a liter-and-a-half of salty slurry is deposed at sea or on land, according to a 2019 study in the journal Science.
All that extra salt raises the temperature of coastal waters and decreases the level of oxygen, which can conspire to create biological “dead zones.”
The super-salty substance is made even more toxic by the chemicals used in the desalination process.
Oman’s bigger neighbors produce the bulk of the brine.
More than half comes from just four countries — Saudi Arabia, at 22 percent, United Arab Emirates with 20 percent, and smaller shares by Kuwait and Qatar, according to UN data.
“Brine production in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar accounts for 55 percent of the total global share,” according to the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
It said new strategies are needed “to limit the negative environmental impacts and reduce the economic cost of disposal.”
This would help “to safeguard water supplies for current and future generations.”
At the Sur plant, “almost no chemicals” are used during the pre-treatment phase, as the water is naturally filtered through the cracks of karst rocks, said Mahendran Senapathy, operations manager at French company Veolia which runs the plant along with an Omani firm.
There are other ways to safeguard freshwater supplies, from encouraging savings and efficiently to recycling wastewater.
Antoine Frerot, chief executive of Veolia, said wastewater recycling will help resolve the problem of water scarcity.
He also pointed out that “reused water is less costly,” nearly one third less than that won through desalination.
Omani authorities continue to mount campaigns urging people to use water wisely, mindful that other demands — especially the energy sector — also guzzle up large amounts.
Across the Gulf, huge amounts of water are used not just for homes, gardens and golf courses, but also for the energy sector that is the source of the region’s often spectacular wealth.
On the edge of the Arabian peninsula’s “Empty Quarter,” the world’s largest expanse of sand, lies the Khazzan gas field, operated by BP and the Oman Oil Company.
The method used to extract the gas here is hydraulic fracturing — more commonly known as fracking — said Stewart Robertson, operations manager at the site.
The method requires huge amounts of water. The site is supplied by a facility that provides 6,000 cubic meters of water a day, extracted from an underground aquifer 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.
Fracking involves directional drilling and then pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture rock and release the hydrocarbons.
The rock formations that hold the gas are “like a big sponge with lots of little holes in it,” said Robertson, explaining that fracking is the process “to open those holes slightly to take the gas out.”
So the more the region extracts oil and natural or shale gas, “the more they need water,” said Charles Iceland of the World Resources Institute.
“The Middle East is projected to need more and more energy,” he said. “So that means the situation is going to get worse.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “if they can produce power using solar photovoltaic technologies, which are getting reasonably priced in the Middle East, that would take care of a lot of the problem because solar PV doesn’t need much water.
“You need just some water to clean the solar panels.”