The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that Iran had made progress in its work on enriched uranium metal, accelerating its enrichment to near weapons-grade.
“Iran increased the purity to which it is refining uranium to 60% fissile purity from 20% in April in response to an explosion and power cut at its Natanz site that damaged output at the main underground enrichment plant there,” a Reuters article revealed, citing the nuclear watchdog’s report on August 17.
The director of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, informed the member states of the agency in a statement that Tehran was boosting such capacity at its Natanz enrichment plant, saying that "Iran had configured a new operational mode for the production of UF6 enriched up to 60 percent U-235".
Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh insisted that Tehran's nuclear program is in line with the IAEA's protocols.
"All of Iran’s nuclear plans and activities are completely in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] and Iran's commitments under the Safeguards Agreement," Khatibzadeh said on August 17, and stressed that Iran would "reverse" its steps once "Washington and other parties fully and verifiably return to their commitments under the JCPOA".
The report surfaced when Iran and the Western countries were seeking to resume talks on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a landmark deal reached between Iran and several world powers, including the United States. Under deal's terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief.
In May 2018, the Trump administration pulled out of the JCPOA, widely known as the 2015 nuclear deal, and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran. Iran retaliated by abandoning most of its obligations and accelerating its nuclear program.
Several rounds of talks on reviving the nuclear deal (JCPOA) between the deal’s remaining signatories (France, Germany, the UK, Russia, China, the EU and Iran) and a US delegation were held in Vienna since April 2021. The incumbent US President Joe Biden expressed readiness to return to the nuclear deal following his inauguration in January 2021.
In late May, the IAEA announced that Iran has recently produced 62.8 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 20 percent purity and 2.4 kilograms enriched up to 60 percent purity — well above the 3.67 percent purity allowed under the nuclear deal. Nuclear weapons-grade is around 90% purity.
In a statement on August 16, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price urged Iran to return to the negotiating table.
"We have made clear that continued nuclear escalations beyond JCPOA limits are unconstructive and inconsistent with a return to mutual compliance," he said, and added that "Iran has no credible need to produce uranium metal, which has direct relevance to nuclear weapons development".