© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: An Iranian flag flies in front of IAEA headquarters in Vienna.
By Francois Murphy and John Irish VIENNA / PARIS (Reuters) – The UN nuclear watchdog found uranium particles at two Iranian sites it inspected after months of evasion, diplomats say, and is preparing to reprimand Tehran for not explain, possibly complicating America’s efforts. revive nuclear diplomacy. Iran’s finding and response risk undermining the new US administration’s efforts to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which President Joe Biden‘s predecessor Donald Trump abandoned. Although the sites where the material was found are believed to have been dormant for nearly two decades, opponents of the nuclear deal, such as Israel, say that evidence of undeclared nuclear activities shows that Iran has not acted in good faith. Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazem Gharibabadi, declined to comment, as did the IAEA itself. A senior Iranian official said: “We have nothing to hide. That is why we allowed inspectors to visit those sites.” Iran has set a deadline for next week for Biden to lift Trump’s sanctions, or stop IAEA inspections under the agreement, which lifted sanctions in exchange for curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Next week is also when the IAEA is expected to release a quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities. Seven diplomats told Reuters that the agency would take that opportunity to reprimand Iran for failing to explain to its satisfaction how the uranium particles ended up at two undeclared sites. The reprimand could come in the quarterly report or in an additional report published the same day. OBLIGATION US intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret and coordinated nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003, which Iran denies. The 2015 nuclear deal did indeed draw a line in that past, but Iran is still required to explain evidence of undeclared past activities or material to the IAEA. The material was found during instant IAEA inspections that took place at the two sites in August and September last year, after Iran banned access for seven months. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that radioactive material was found in samples taken by inspectors at the two sites, although the newspaper did not specify what the material was. Four diplomats closely following the agency’s work told Reuters that the material found in those samples was uranium. Identifying the material as uranium creates a burden for Iran to explain it, since enriched uranium can be used in the core of a nuclear weapon. Iran is required to account for all uranium so that the IAEA can verify that it is not diverting anything to a weapons program. Two of the sources said that the uranium found last year was not enriched. However, their presence suggests undisclosed nuclear material or activities at the sites, which Iran would have had to disclose. The IAEA’s full findings are a closely guarded secret within the agency and only a small number of countries have been informed of the details. Five diplomats said that after the IAEA confronted Iran with the findings, it gave unsatisfactory responses. Two of them said Iran told the agency the traces were the result of contamination from radioactive equipment moved there from another site, but the IAEA checked and the particles at the sites did not match. A diplomat who reported on the exchanges, but not the detailed findings, said Iran had given “implausible responses”, describing Iran’s response as “typical delaying tactics.” The agency has said it suspects that one of the sites hosted uranium conversion work, one step in processing the material before enrichment, and the other was used for explosive testing. The seven diplomats said they expect the agency to call Iran for failing to explain the traces found at the two sites, as well as its continued failure to explain material previously found at another site in Tehran, Turqazabad. Diplomats said it was unclear whether the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors, which meets a week after the quarterly report, would take steps to condemn Iran. Several said the focus was on efforts to salvage the 2015 deal by getting Washington back on board. “Everyone is waiting for the Americans,” said a diplomat.