UN nuclear watchdog: Iran removing 27 surveillance cameras

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VIENNA — The head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency said Thursday that Iran is removing 27 surveillance cameras from nuclear sites in the country, raising the risk of its inspectors being unable to track Tehran’s advances as it enriches closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, made the comments at a suddenly called news conference in Vienna, standing next to an example of the cameras installed across Iran.

Grossi said the move poses a “serious challenge” to its efforts, warning that in three to four weeks, it would be unable to maintain a “continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s program.

“This would be a fatal blow” to negotiations over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers, Grossi said.

“When we lose this, then it’s anybody’s guess,” he added.

Iran did not immediately acknowledge it was removing the cameras, though it threatened Wednesday to take more steps amid a yearslong crisis that threatens to widen into further attacks across the Mideast.

Grossi said that would leave “40-something” cameras still in Iran. Grossi stated that Iran’s underground nuclear enrichment plant Natanz and its Isfahan facility would be the first to have their cameras taken away.

“We are in a very tense situation with the negotiations over the (nuclear deal) at a low ebb,” Grossi added. “Now we are adding this to the picture; as you can see it’s not a very nice one.”

On Wednesday, Iran said it shut off two devices the IAEA uses to monitor enrichment at Natanz. Grossi admitted that it had taken out the Online Enrichment Monitor (and flowmeter) from its monitoring system at Natanz. These people watch enrichment of Uranium Gas through pipes at enrichment plants.

Iran’s decision comes as the IAEA’s board censured Tehran over what the agency calls the Islamic Republic’s failure to provide “credible information” over man-made nuclear material found at three undeclared sites in the country.

The IAEA earlier Thursday said Grossi told members that Iran informed the agency that it planned to install two new cascades of the IR-6 at Natanz. Cascades are a group of centrifuges that spin uranium to accelerate its enrichment.

An IR-6 centrifuge spins uranium 10 times as fast as the first-generation centrifuges that Iran was once limited to under its nuclear deal with world powers. According to IAEA, Iran had already been spinning a series of IR-6s underground at Fordo since February.

Iran earlier said it planned to install one cascade of IR-6s at Natanz. While the IAEA stated that it had “verified” Monday’s installation of the cascade, the promised new two cascades were still to be installed.

Iran and world powers agreed in 2015 to the nuclear deal, which saw Tehran drastically limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord, raising tensions across the wider Middle East and sparking a series of attacks and incidents.

Talks in Vienna over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal have been stalled since April. Iran has an increasing stockpile and advanced centrifuges since the collapse of the nuclear deal.

Nonproliferation experts warn Iran has enriched enough up to 60% purity — a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90% — to make one nuclear weapon should it decide to do so.

Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, though U.N. experts and Western intelligence agencies say Iran had an organized military nuclear program through 2003.

Building a nuclear bomb would still take Iran more time if it pursued a weapon, analysts say, though they warn Tehran’s advances make the program more dangerous. Israel threatened to strike Iran in preemptive strikes in the past. This threat is already being used in recent attacks on Iranian officials.

Iran already has been holding footage from IAEA surveillance cameras since February 2021 as a pressure tactic to restore the atomic accord. According to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (which runs its civilian nuclear programme), video was published on Wednesday showing its employees turning off regular and backup power for IAEA cameras.

The censure resolution at the IAEA meeting in Vienna, sponsored by Germany, France, the U.K. and U.S., passed with the support of 30 of 35 governors. Russia and China voted no, Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian ambassador wrote via Twitter. India, Pakistan and Libya abstained.

After the vote, a joint statement from France, Germany, and the U.K. and the U.S. said the censure “sends an unambiguous message to Iran that it must meet its safeguards obligations and provide technically credible clarifications on outstanding safeguards issues.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry meanwhile criticized the censure as a “political, incorrect and unconstructive action.”

An Iranian official earlier warned IAEA officials that Tehran was now considering taking “other measures” as well.

“We hope that they come to their senses and respond to Iran’s cooperation with cooperation,” said Behrouz Kamalvandi, an Iranian nuclear spokesman. “It is not acceptable that they show inappropriate behavior while Iran continues to cooperate.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett praised the vote as “a significant decision that exposes Iran’s true face.”

The “IAEA vote is a clear warning light to Iran: If Iran continues its activity, the leading countries must bring the matter back to the U.N. Security Council,” said Bennett, who made an unannounced trip Thursday to the United Arab Emirates.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called the U.S. “the culprit in the Iranian nuclear crisis” and urged America to “respond positively to the legitimate concerns of the Iranian side.”

Wednesday night, a drone exploded in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in its Kurdish region, slightly wounding three people and damaging cars and a nearby restaurant, officials said. According to the Kurdistan’s general directorate for counter-terrorism, the Iranian-backed Kataeb Hezbollah or Hezbollah Brigades was responsible for the launch of the drone.


Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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