IAEA chief: Iran building underground centrifuge plant at nuclear facility

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi addresses workers during a visit at the Natanz nuclear facility last year. (AFP/File)
Short Url
Updated 28 October 2020

IAEA chief: Iran building underground centrifuge plant at nuclear facility

  • Rafael Grossi says Iran continues to stockpile greater amounts of low-enriched uranium
  • Previous centrifuge facility exploded in what Tehran called a sabotage attack

BERLIN: Inspectors from the UN’s atomic watchdog have confirmed Iran has started building an underground centrifuge assembly plant after its previous one exploded in what Tehran called a sabotage attack over the summer, the agency’s head told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Iran also continues to stockpile greater amounts of low-enriched uranium, but does not appear to possess enough to produce a weapon, Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the AP in an interview in Berlin.
Following the July explosion at the Natanz nuclear site, Tehran said it would build a new, more secure, structure in the mountains around the area. Satellite pictures of Natanz analyzed by experts have yet to show any obvious signs of construction at the site in Iran’s central Isfahan province.
“They have started, but it’s not completed,” Grossi said. “It’s a long process.”
He would not give further details, saying it’s “confidential information.” Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear department, last month told state television the destroyed above-ground facility was being replaced with one “in the heart of the mountains around Natanz.”




Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Iran also continues to stockpile greater amounts of low-enriched uranium. (AP)


Natanz hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. In its long underground halls, centrifuges rapidly spin uranium hexafluoride gas to enrich uranium.
Natanz became a flashpoint for Western fears about Iran’s nuclear program in 2002, when satellite photos showed Iran building an underground facility at the site, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Tehran. In 2003, the IAEA visited Natanz, which Iran said would house centrifuges for its nuclear program, buried under some 7.6 meters (25 feet) of concrete. That offers protection from potential airstrikes on the site, which also is guarded by anti-aircraft positions.
Natanz had been targeted by the Stuxnet computer virus previously, which was believed to be a creation of the US and Israel. Iran has yet to say who it suspects of carrying out the sabotage in the July incident. Suspicion has fallen on Israel as well, despite a claim of responsibility by a previously unheard-of group at the time.
Under the provisions of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran is allowed to produce a certain amount of enriched uranium for non-military purposes.
In return, Iran was offered economic incentives by the countries involved.
Since President Donald Trump pulled the US unilaterally out of the deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, however, the other signatories — Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China — have been struggling to keep the deal alive.
Meanwhile, Iran has been steadily exceeding the deal’s limits on how much uranium it can stockpile, the purity to which it can enrich uranium and other restrictions to pressure those countries to come up with a plan to offset US sanctions.
Still though, Iran has continued to allow IAEA inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities, including Natanz, Grossi said.
In the latest IAEA quarterly report, the agency reported Iran as of Aug. 25 had stockpiled 2,105.4 kilograms (4,641.6 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, well above the 202.8 kilograms (447.1 pounds) allowed under the JCPOA. It was also enriching uranium to a purity of 4.5%, higher than the 3.67% allowed under the deal.
In the next report, due in coming weeks, Grossi said: “We continue to see the same trend that we have seen so far.”
According to a widely cited analysis by the Washington-based Arms Control Association, Iran would need roughly 1,050 kilograms (1.16 tons) of low-enriched uranium — under 5% purity — in gas form and would then need to enrich it further to weapons-grade, or more than 90% purity, to make a nuclear weapon.
The IAEA’s current assessment is, however, that Iran does not at the moment possess a “significant quantity” of uranium — defined by the agency as enough to produce a bomb — according to Grossi.
“At the moment, I’m not in contact with my inspectors, but by memory, I wouldn’t say so,” he said.
“All of these are projections and the IAEA is not into speculation” he added. “What may happen? What could happen? We are inspectors, we say the amounts that we see.”
Iran insists it has no interest in producing a bomb, and Grossi noted that before the JCPOA, Iran had enriched its uranium up to 20% purity, which is just a short technical step away from the weapons-grade level of 90%. And in 2013, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium was already more than 7,000 kilograms (7.72 tons) with higher enrichment, but it didn’t pursue a bomb.
“The idea of a ‘significant quantity’ is a technical parameter ... that applies in the context of the safeguards agreement to indicate amounts which could be theoretically used for the development of a nuclear weapon,” he said.
“The fact that there could be such an amount would not indicate automatically that a nuclear weapon is being fabricated, so I think we have to be very careful when we use these terms.”
Grossi personally visited Tehran in late August for meetings with top officials, and managed to break a months-long impasse over two locations thought to be from the early 2000s where Iran was suspected of having stored or used undeclared nuclear material and possibly conducted nuclear-related activities.
Inspectors have now taken samples from both of those sites, and Grossi said they are still undergoing lab analysis.
“It was a constructive solution to a problem what we were having,” he said. “And I would say since then we have kept the good level of cooperation in the sense that our inspectors are regularly present and visiting the sites."


Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

Updated 26 November 2020

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

  • Erdogan defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts
  • Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq: analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the country has a “Kurdish issue,” even as he doubled down on his anti-Kurdish stance and accused a politician of being a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Erdogan was addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Nov. 25 when he made the remarks.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an insurgency against the state in 1984, and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and US. Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of links to the PKK, which it denies.

Erdogan told AKP members that Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s former co-chair who challenged him in the 2015 presidential elections, was a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Demirtas has been behind bars since Nov. 4, 2016, despite court orders calling for his release and faces hundreds of years in prison over charges related to the outlawed PKK.

The president defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast region since local elections in March 2019.

He also said the AKP would design and implement democratization reforms with its nationalistic coalition partner, which is known for its anti-Kurdish credentials.  

His words are likely to disrupt the peace efforts that Turkey has been making with its Kurdish community for years, although they have been baby steps. They could also hint at a tougher policy shift against Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

According to Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani, Erdogan’s comments should be read as a reaction to Tuesday’s resignation of top presidential aide Bulent Arinc, who urged for Demirtas to be released and insisted that the Kurds were repressed within Turkey.

“This gained widespread coverage in the Kurdish media, including in Iraqi Kurdistan's outlet Rudaw which has international viewership,” he told Arab News. “Erdogan wanted to stop speculation on this issue.”

Ramani said that Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

“It is also an oblique warning to US President-elect Joe Biden not to try to interfere in Turkish politics by raising the treatment of Kurds within Turkey.”

But Erdogan’s comments would matter little in the long run, he added.

“Much more will depend on whether Turkey mounts another Operation Peace Spring-style offensive in northern Syria, which is a growing possibility. If that occurs during the Trump to Biden transition period, the incoming Biden administration could be more critical of Turkey and convert its rhetoric on solidarity with the Kurds into action.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key partner for the US in its fight against Daesh. During a campaign speech in Oct. 2019, Biden criticized the US decision to withdraw from Syria as a “complete failure” that would leave Syrian Kurds open to aggression from Turkey.

“It’s more insidious than the betrayal of our brave Kurdish partners, it’s more dangerous than taking the boot off the neck of ISIS,” Biden said at the time.

UK-based analyst Bill Park said that Erdogan was increasingly influenced by his coalition partners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“He might also believe that both the PKK and the HDP have been so weakened that he doesn't have to take them into consideration,” he told Arab News. “The Western world will not respond dramatically to this announcement but they are tired of Erdogan. There is little hope that Turkey's relations with the US or the EU can be much improved. The Syrian Kurdish PYD militia are seeking an accommodation with Damascus, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, is indifferent to the fate of Turkey's Kurds and has problems of its own.”

The HDP, meanwhile, is skeptical about Erdogan’s reform pledges and sees them as “politicking.”

“This reform narrative is not sincere,” said HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas, according to a Reuters news agency report. “This is a party which has been in power for 18 years and which has until now totally trampled on the law. It has one aim: To win back the support which has been lost.”

Turkey’s next election is scheduled for 2023, unless there is a snap election in a year.