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Iran enriching uranium to near weapons-grade levels, nuclear watchdog warns

Tehran “continues its unprecedented and grave nuclear escalation,” according to Britain, France and Germany.
Iranian technicians remove a container of radioactive uranium, 'yellow cake', sealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, to be used at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facilities
Iranian technicians remove a container of radioactive uranium, known as "yellowcake," to be used at the Isfahan uranium conversion facility in 2005.Behrouz Mehri / AFP via Getty Images

Iran has begun enriching uranium close to weapons-grade levels, according to a report released by the United Nations nuclear watchdog Wednesday, sending Tehran closer to becoming a nuclear power.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, said in its report that Iran had produced uranium particles that were enriched up to 83.7% purity at its Fordo fuel enrichment plant south of Tehran.

In a separate statement, U.S. allies France, Germany and the United Kingdom issued a stark warning over Iran's nuclear activities.

“The full range of findings outlined by the Director General’s report are alarming: Iran continues its unprecedented and grave nuclear escalation,” Corinne Kitsell and Götz Schmidt-Bremme, the British and German ambassadors to the nuclear watchdog respectively, said in the statement.

They cited the report prepared by IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. NBC News reviewed a copy of the report Wednesday.

“This is significantly inconsistent with the level of enrichment declared by Iran and Iran has yet to convince us that this was due to its claimed ‘unintended fluctuations,’” the joint statement added.  

Reuters and other outlets previously reported the IAEA's finding, citing Grossi's report. The Iranian government did not respond to requests for comment, but Tehran told the agency that the high levels of enrichment were "unintended fluctuations," according to the report.

Iran has maintained it is not interested in obtaining nuclear weapons.

Laura Holgate, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, noted in a statement that "no other country in the world today utilizes uranium enriched to 60 percent for the purpose Iran claims," and yet Tehran insists it is "unfairly targeted by others."

"The reality remains that Iran continues to single itself out through its own actions," she said. "Iran should cease its nuclear provocations and its continued pursuit of steps that pose grave proliferation risks."

A National Security Council spokesperson said the White House had seen the IAEA’s report and was in contact with American allies and partners in the region.

Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to about 90%, according to the World Nuclear Association, a group that lobbies for the nuclear industry. Nuclear reactors that produce energy, which Iran has maintained is its essential interest in enriching uranium, typically require fuel that is enriched to only 3-5%.

Beyond enrichment, Iran had also expanded its stockpile of 5%, 20% and 60% enriched uranium "to new extremes," the joint statement said, pointing to findings in the report. The country appeared to have also installed new centrifuges that would "substantially increase Iran's enrichment capacity" and continued further work on the production of uranium metal.

Iran seemed to follow the terms of the nuclear deal the U.S. and its allies brokered until the Trump administration pulled out of the agreement. Within the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, Iran agreed to enrich uranium to only 3.67% for 15 years, get rid of its medium-enriched uranium stockpile, reduce its low-enriched uranium by 98% and cut the number of its gas centrifuges by two-thirds for 13 years.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends military parade in Tehran, Iran
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a military parade in Tehran on April 18, 2019. Iranian Presidency / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

NBC News reported in November that Iran had expanded uranium enrichment to 60% purity at its Fordo facility, a major step toward obtaining weapons-grade nuclear material. The report was issued only days after foreign governments accused Tehran of failing to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into its past nuclear work.

Since President Joe Biden took office in 2021, the administration has tried to revive the nuclear deal, but talks were stymied last year.

“Iran, for a variety of reasons, has chosen to insert extraneous issues into the effort to revive the JCPOA," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a November trip to Qatar.

Trump administration officials were bullish about ending the agreement. Speaking about the decision in 2018, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. would “ensure Iran has no path to a nuclear weapon — not now, not ever.”

According to Jon Wolfsthal, who led nonproliferation policy on then-President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, based on the enrichment levels Tehran is now likely weeks away from having the capability to build a bomb, and it could learn quickly how to affix a warhead to a missile.

The U.S. pulling from the nuclear deal means Washington and its allies may not know if Iran produces a nuclear weapon, he said.

“I don’t think anyone would tell you now, ‘We have high confidence that we could determine if Iran made the mad dash for a nuclear weapon,’” Wolfsthal said.

According to a report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Wednesday, Iran has not yet launched work required to manufacture a nuclear weapon, but it looks likely that it will work to enrich its uranium stockpile to weapons-grade level if U.S. economic sanctions are not lifted.

“Iran has emphasized improving the accuracy, lethality, and reliability of its missiles," the report states.

It said Iran’s work on space launch vehicles shortens the timeline to an intercontinental ballistic missile if it decides to develop one because they both use similar technologies.

Last month, Iran showed off on national television its new long-range cruise missile that can travel over 1,000 miles. Tehran maintains that its missile program is only for defense and deterrence.