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Iran producing uranium metal in violation of 2015 nuclear deal, U.N. inspectors say

The move is the latest breach of the nuclear accord as Iran seeks to bolster its leverage before possible negotiations with the Biden administration.
A technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, on Feb. 3, 2007.
A technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside Isfahan, Iran, on Feb. 3, 2007.Vahid Salemi / AP file

WASHINGTON — The U.N. atomic agency said Wednesday that Iran has started to produce uranium metal, marking the latest breach of the 2015 nuclear agreement by Tehran.

Inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, verified on Feb. 8 that Iran had produced a small amount of uranium metal at a nuclear plant in Isfahan, the agency's spokesman, Fredrik Dahl, said in an email. In a report to member states, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi informed the agency's member states about the development.

The material can be used to build the core of a nuclear weapon. The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers expressly forbids producing uranium metal or researching and developing uranium metallurgy for 15 years.

The production of uranium metal further complicates any potential diplomacy between Tehran and the new administration in Washington when each government has staked out negotiating positions that put the onus on the other side to take the first conciliatory step.

Iran had notified the IAEA previously that it planned to take the step, prompting a warning from European governments. The Europeans had said that producing uranium metal was prohibited by the 2015 deal, that there was "no credible civilian use" for uranium metal and that the move posed "potentially grave military implications."

The 2015 deal between Iran and the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, imposed restrictions on Iran's nuclear program in return for the lifting of international and U.S. economic sanctions.

Iran says it remains within the parameters of the 2015 agreement, arguing that it was the U.S. that violated the deal by withdrawing from the pact in 2018 and reimposing sanctions. Iranian officials say that because Iran is not benefiting from sanctions relief as promised by the deal, the government is within its legal rights under the accord not to comply with restrictions on its nuclear work.

Since former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in 2018, Iran has gradually violated the terms of the deal, although it has not fully renounced the accords. Tehran has expanded its production of nuclear fuel, used more advanced centrifuges and started to produce uranium enriched to 20 percent — placing it one technical step away from weapons-grade material.

Iran has said it is ready to return to abiding by the agreement only if the U.S. lifts sanctions that have crippled its economy. In recent months, Iran has increasingly pushed beyond the boundaries of the agreement, apparently in a bid to build up its leverage in advance of possible negotiations with the Biden administration and other governments.

President Joe Biden has said he is ready to bring the U.S. back into the agreement but only after Iran returns to compliance.

State Department spokesman Ned Price did not address the IAEA's findings directly, but he told reporters Wednesday that the administration continues "to urge Tehran to resume full compliance with the JCPOA."

"We continue to do that because that, for us, would open up the pathway for diplomacy, and we certainly hope to be able to pursue that pathway of diplomacy in order to resolve what we do consider to be an urgent challenge," Price said.

Iran has warned that it could impose restrictions on IAEA inspectors in the country on Feb. 21 if the U.S. does not lift sanctions, which would mark the most serious breach of the deal so far. The U.S. and European powers say access for the inspectors is a crucial element of the agreement.

Abigail Williams contributed.