The head of the UN’s nuclear monitoring agency said on Thursday that Iran was removing 27 surveillance cameras from nuclear sites in the country, raising the risk that its inspectors could not follow Tehran’s progress as it s ‘enriches closer than ever to military-grade levels.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, made the comments during a suddenly called press conference in Vienna, standing next to an example of the cameras installed across Iran.
Grossi said the move poses a “serious challenge” to his efforts, warning that in three to four weeks he will be unable to maintain “continuity of knowledge” on the Iranian program.
“It would be a fatal blow” to Iran’s tattered nuclear deal negotiations with world powers, Grossi said.
“When we lose that, anyone can guess,” he added.
Iran did not immediately acknowledge it was withdrawing the cameras, although it threatened on Wednesday to take more action amid a years-long crisis that threatens to spill over into further attacks across the Middle East.
Grossi said that would still leave cameras “in quarantine” in Iran. Sites that would see the cameras removed include its Natanz underground nuclear enrichment facility, as well as its facility in Isfahan, Grossi said.
“We are in a very tense situation with the negotiations on (the nuclear deal) at an all-time low,” Grossi added. “Now we add this to the picture; as you can see, it’s not very pretty.
On Wednesday, Iran said it shut down two devices the IAEA uses to monitor enrichment at Natanz. Grossi acknowledged this, saying that among the devices removed were the inline enrichment monitor and the flow meter. These monitor the enrichment of uranium gas through the pipelines of enrichment facilities.
Iran’s move comes as the IAEA’s board censures Tehran for what the agency calls the Islamic Republic’s failure to provide ‘credible information’ about man-made nuclear material found on three undeclared sites in the country.
Earlier Thursday, the IAEA said Grossi told members that Iran had informed the agency that it planned to install two new IR-6 stunts at Natanz. A cascade is a series of centrifuges linked together to rapidly spin uranium gas to enrich it.
An IR-6 centrifuge spins uranium 10 times faster than the first-generation centrifuges Iran was once restricted to under its nuclear deal with world powers. In February, Iran had already spun a cascade of IR-6s at its underground facility in Fordo, according to the IAEA.
Iran announced earlier that it plans to install a cascade of IR-6s in Natanz. The IAEA said it “verified” the ongoing installation of this cascade on Monday, when the two newly promised new cascades had not yet started.
Iran and world powers agreed to the nuclear deal in 2015, which saw Tehran drastically limit its uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled America out of the deal, raising tensions across the Middle East and triggering a series of attacks and incidents.
Talks in Vienna over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal have stalled since April. Since the collapse of the deal, Iran has been using advanced centrifuges and has a rapidly growing stockpile of enriched uranium.
Non-proliferation experts warn that Iran has sufficiently enriched up to 60% purity – a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90% – to make a nuclear weapon if it decides to do so.
Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, although UN experts and Western intelligence agencies say Iran had an organized military nuclear program until 2003.
Building a nuclear bomb would take Iran even longer if it pursued a weapon, analysts say, though they warn Tehran’s advances make the program more dangerous. Israel has threatened in the past to carry out a preemptive strike to stop Iran – and is already suspected in a series of recent killings targeting Iranian officials.
Iran already has footage from IAEA surveillance cameras since February 2021 as a pressure tactic to reinstate the atomic deal. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, which runs its civilian nuclear program, released video it said showed its employees turning off normal and backup battery power to two IAEA cameras on Wednesday.
The no-confidence resolution at the IAEA meeting in Vienna, sponsored by Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, passed with the support of 30 of the 35 governors. Russia and China voted against, Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov wrote on Twitter. India, Libya and Pakistan abstained.
After the vote, a joint statement from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States said that the censorship “sends an unambiguous message to Iran that it must respect its obligations in terms of warranties and provide technically credible clarification of outstanding warranty issues”.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry meanwhile criticized the censorship as a “political, incorrect and unconstructive action”.
An Iranian official had previously warned IAEA officials that Tehran was now considering taking “other measures” as well.
“We hope they will come to their senses and respond to Iran’s cooperation with cooperation,” said Behrouz Kamalvandi, an Iranian nuclear spokesman. “It is not acceptable for them to display inappropriate behavior while Iran continues to cooperate.”
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hailed the vote as “an important decision that reveals the true face of Iran”.
The “IAEA vote is a clear wake-up call for Iran: If Iran continues its activity, major countries must take the matter back to the UN Security Council,” Bennett said. who traveled unannounced to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called the United States “culprit for the Iranian nuclear crisis” and urged America to “respond positively to the Iranian side’s legitimate concerns.”
On Wednesday evening, a drone exploded in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil in its Kurdish region, lightly injuring three people and damaging cars and a nearby restaurant, officials said. The Kurdistan Region’s General Directorate of Counter-Terrorism claimed on Thursday that the Iranian-backed Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, launched the drone.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.