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Iran suspected of hiding activity at nuclear site 

What happened: The Wall Street Journal reports that Iran has resumed production of equipment for advanced centrifuges.

  • The production is taking place in Karaj, at a site that IAEA inspectors have been unable to monitor or gain access to for months.
  • According to the report: “Iran resumed work on a limited scale in late August at an assembly plant in Karaj, a city west of Tehran, and has since accelerated its production, allowing it to manufacture an unknown number of rotors and bellows for more advanced centrifuges.”
  • “According to the diplomats, Iran has now produced significant amounts of centrifuge parts since late August, with one of the diplomats saying it has produced parts for at least 170 advanced centrifuges.”
  • The report claims at present there is no evidence the centrifuges parts have been diverted elsewhere but according to their diplomatic source, “as the number of unmonitored centrifuges increases, the likelihood for this scenario increases”.
  • Earlier this week the US special envoy on Iran, Robert Malley, visited Israel for talks with senior officials including Foreign Minister Lapid, Defence Minister Gantz and Director of Mossad David Barnea.
  • According to the US State Department, the purpose of Malley’s visit was to “coordinate approaches on a broad range of concerns with Iran, including its destabilising activities in the region and the upcoming seventh round of talks on a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA”.
  • Lapid reinforced Israeli concerns that Iran is trying to buy time with negotiations until the issue of re-joining the nuclear deal is no longer relevant.

Context: The advanced centrifuges are a central component of Iran’s nuclear programme. They can used to spin enriched uranium into higher levels of purity (90 per cent) for nuclear weapons.

  • Earlier this year Iran limited the access of IAEA inspectors at many of its nuclear-related sites, including Karaj, but agreed to keep agency cameras and recording devices in place.
  • However, in June following an alleged Israeli sabotage attack on the site, the Iranians claimed the attack had damaged the IAEA cameras and used the pretext of the attack to effectively stop IAEA monitoring at the site.
  • Since former President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal, Iran has installed more than 1,000 more advanced centrifuges, which are able to enrich uranium more quickly. That has helped reduce Iran’s current breakout time to produce enough enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon to as little as a month.
  • In September Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned: “The Iranians are advancing unhindered with their nuclear programme. They are ignoring the IAEA guidelines. They are simply disrespecting it and are trying to disguise the fact that their programme was, and remains, a nuclear weapons programme … the Iranian nuclear programme is at the most advanced point ever.”
  • The IAEA has also recognised Israel concerns that Iran’s nuclear activities are no longer being fully tracked, warning in September that Iran’s failure to restore cameras to Karaj is seriously compromising the agency’s ability to ensure continuous knowledge about the nuclear programme.
  • At the start of September, the IAEA estimated that Iran has a stockpile of 10kg of near 60 per cent enriched uranium and 84.3kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium. According to the ISIS think-tank, Iran would need about 40kg of 60 per cent enriched uranium to be able to produce enough weapons-grade enrichment (93.5 per cent).
  • According to the spokesman of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization at the beginning of November, Iran has more than 210 kg of uranium enriched to 20 per cent, and 25 kg at 60 per cent.

Looking ahead: All eyes will be on Vienna when the nuclear talks resume on November 29.

  • Having consulted with Israeli officials, US envoy Malley is also visiting the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.
  • The upcoming round of nuclear talks will be the first one since Iran’s hard-line government under new President Ebrahim Raisi took power.
  • Western diplomats have warned that without a clear understanding of what material and equipment Iran has now, it is even harder to reach an agreement.
  • IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi is still hoping to visit Iran ahead of the resumption of talks in Vienna.  He is hoping to resolve two outstanding issues; access to Karaj to replace the cameras and an explanation for traces of uranium found at three undeclared sites.

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