Iran Hits Back at Nuclear Watchdog After Uranium Enrichment Warning

Iran's top representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has warned the body not to overstep the limits of its mandate. The warning comes as Tehran threatens to move further from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in response to American sanctions and the alleged Israeli assassination of one of its top scientists.

The Iranian parliament last month approved a new bill instructing the country's atomic energy body to increase its uranium enrichment program and block international inspectors from its nuclear sites, both prohibited under the 2015 JCPOA which has been in limbo since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2018.

The bill was a response to the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, killed on a country road outside Tehran last month. Iran has blamed Israel for the killing, and suggested the U.S. may have assisted the operation.

The IAEA has condemned both the assassination and Iran's move away from the JCPOA. Tehran began violating the deal piecemeal after Trump's withdrawal, and said it would no longer comply with any elements of the accord after the U.S. assassinated top commander Major General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January.

IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi told Sky News Thursday that the Iranian "measures would be an even further deviation from the commitments that Iran entered into when it joined the agreement."

He added: "I cannot imagine who would win from such a situation. If there was any limitation of the IAEA inspectors as a result of this or any other situation were curtailed in their work."

"Very clearly we would have to inform about this," Grossi said. "We would have to be very clear to the world this is happening. And this in itself would not help anyone including Iran."

Iran's permanent representative to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, tweeted a pointed response to Grossi's warning on Friday. The diplomat said the IAEA's "sole role is to monitor and verify the voluntary nuclear-related measures as detailed in the JCPOA and to provide regular updates in this regard."

"Any assessment or analysis is out of the mandate of the Agency," Gharibabadi added.

The remaining JCPOA signatories—Russia, China, the U.K., Germany and France—have been trying to save the nuclear deal since Trump's withdrawal. Already, these nations and others were concerned about Iran's refusal to comply.

Tehran now has more than 12 times the level of enriched uranium allowed under the JCPOA, some of which is also of a higher enrichment than permitted. Uranium enriched to between 3 and 5 percent can be used in nuclear power, but it needs to be around 90 percent enriched for use in weapons.

Iran's parliament has ordered the country's nuclear agency to increase enrichment to around 20 percent. From here, the technical step to get to 90 percent is relatively simple, meaning a stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium would greatly decrease Tehran's so-called "break out time" to a nuclear warhead if it decides to pursue one.

Still, Iranian leaders have said they are willing to return to full JCPOA compliance if President-Elect Joe Biden does the same come January. Biden and America's European allies have hinted they wish to widen the deal to include limits on Iran's ballistic missile program and regional influence, which could be a sticking point in any future negotiations.

Iran flag in Tehran amid JCPOA concerns
This file photo shows men walking past a mural in the Iranian capital Tehran, on November 30, 2020. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty