The U.S. and its European allies have split over the response to Iran’s production of near-weapons-grade uranium, with Britain, France and Germany favoring a public censure of Tehran while the Biden administration is reluctant to do that, according to diplomats involved in the discussions.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said this week that Iran had produced particles of enriched uranium of around 84% in recent weeks, just shy of the roughly 90% needed for weapons-grade nuclear fuel.
The production of weapons-grade material could spark a crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program. European diplomats say it could be the trigger to kill off the 2015 nuclear deal. Israeli officials have signaled that weapons-grade enrichment is a red line, although they haven’t publicly set out what their response would be. Washington has long warned Iran against crossing that threshold.
The IAEA has said discussions with Tehran on what happened are continuing and officials close to the agency have said they can’t say with certainty whether Iran’s production was accidental or intentional. Tehran says the production of the 84% enriched uranium was unintended.
This week’s IAEA report said that Iran wasn’t stockpiling near-weapons-grade material and that it was still producing 60% enriched uranium at Fordow, a high but less dangerous level.
When the incident was first reported in the media, European officials warned that the enrichment of uranium at that level would be “an unprecedented and extremely grave development.”
Britain, France and Germany wanted to formally censure Iran at an IAEA board of governors meeting next week by passing a resolution calling out Iran’s nuclear activities, the diplomats said.
The board could refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council but hasn’t done so on previous occasions when Iran has been censored.
However, U.S. officials are arguing against a rebuke although a final decision hasn’t yet been taken. Washington wants to see what the agency concludes about the production of the material. IAEA Director-General
is expected to head to Tehran on Thursday.
They also note that Iran was censored at the IAEA board’s last meeting in November. The European countries are unlikely to push a resolution without Washington’s support.
In a press briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesman
said Washington was “going to continue to consult very closely with our partners to do what we believe will be most effective” to address Iran’s nuclear challenge ahead of the IAEA board meeting.
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The U.S. and its partners could call an extraordinary IAEA board meeting at some future point if the agency came to a clear conclusion about whether Iran intended to produce the material.
In the past, Iran has reacted angrily to formal rebukes at the board, stepping up its nuclear work or restricting the oversight of IAEA inspectors in response.
The dispute comes as worries grow about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while the prospects of reviving the 2015 deal—which lifted most international sanctions on Tehran in exchange for tight but temporary limits on its activities—appear slight.
In Munich last month, U.S. Secretary of State
and his British, French and German counterparts tasked senior officials to consider what diplomatic options existed for stopping Tehran from advancing its program.
U.S. and European diplomats say fresh talks for reviving the 2015 nuclear deal aren’t currently on the agenda given Iran’s brutal crackdown on antigovernment protesters and its support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
It isn’t the first time the U.S. and its European partners have diverged over how to handle Iran’s nuclear program. Senior European negotiators left the Vienna negotiations on reviving the nuclear deal last March while the U.S. and Iran were still talking, frustrated that Washington and Tehran wouldn’t close a deal.
Some European diplomats have said that over the past 12 months, Washington has appeared unwilling to either pay the political cost of reviving the nuclear pact or take the risks of a tougher stance on Iran’s nuclear work.
After the U.S. left the nuclear deal in 2018, Iran began to expand its nuclear program. Two years ago, it started producing 60%-enriched uranium, the only nonnuclear weapons country to do so. Iran has far more than enough 60% material for a single nuclear weapon if further enriched to weapons-grade levels, a process that would take a few weeks, U.S. officials say.
Iran claims its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes. Central Intelligence Agency Director
said last week that the agency doesn’t believe Iran has taken a decision to resume work on making a nuclear weapon.
The discovery of near-weapons-grade material in Iran is the latest run-in between Iran and the agency. The IAEA reported this week it took samples at Iran’s underground Fordow nuclear site on Jan. 22, the day after it discovered Iran had connected up cascades of advanced centrifuges, machines for enriching uranium, without informing the agency.
Iran has also failed to cooperate with an IAEA probe into undeclared nuclear material found in Tehran, the agency says.
The traces of 84%-enriched uranium were found in the cascades Iran had connected up without informing the agency. The aim of that work, diplomats say, was to produce highly enriched uranium more efficiently and possibly to experiment with pathways for producing weapons-grade material.
“Whether Iran’s enrichment to 84 percent was accidental or not, the message to Iran needs to be clear—that nearing weapons grade levels is unacceptable,” said Eric Brewer, deputy vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based security think tank and a former director for counter-proliferation at the National Security Council. “Iran needs to hear this from everyone.”