By Isabelle Le Page — ANALYSTS played down the UN atomic agency’s discovery of higher-grade uranium traces in Iran, saying it was likely due to a technical glitch rather than an attempt to enrich to arms grade. The agency’s latest report did however say that satellite imagery showed “extensive activity” at the Parchin military site, which it said could hamper investigating claims of suspected nuclear weapons research there.
The International Atomic Energy Agency also revealed that its head, Yukiya Amano, wanted in a visit to Tehran on May 21 to “conclude” a deal on clarifying accusations of such research. But Amano returned empty-handed, saying only that he and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili made a “decision” to reach an agreement, and that he expected this to be signed “quite soon.”
The agency report said that the traces found at the Fordo site, inside a mountain near Qom, were of uranium enriched to purities of 27 per cent. Iran has told the IAEA that the site was enriching only to 20 per cent, which was already of concern to the watchdog since the capability to do so shortens the theoretical time needed to enrich to weapons-grade uranium of 90 per cent.
“Iran indicated that the production of such particles ‘above the target value’ may happen for technical reasons beyond the operator’s control,” the report said.
“The agency is assessing Iran’s explanation and has requested further details. On May 5, the agency took further environmental samples from the same location.... These samples are currently being analysed,” it added.
Analysts played down the discovery, with Mark Fitzpatrick from the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank in London saying it was “probably a technical glitch.”
Mark Hibbs, nuclear proliferation expert at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace, agreed that the discovery “isn’t proof that Iran is enriching uranium to over 20 per cent.” Hibbs added however that Amano “has to be concerned about that possibility because of Iran’s track record of concealment and failure to declare nuclear activities.”
A diplomat in Vienna said that it was “is possible that 27 per cent particles are the result of the start-up of centrifuge cascades.” “It is not necessarily a sign that Iran is enriching to levels beyond what it has declared. We wait for the agency’s analysis,” the envoy said.