WASHINGTON/VIENNA: A U.N. nuclear agency report that Iran has boosted its uranium enrichment capacity led to a renewed a call Wednesday in the U.S. Congress for tighter sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s quarterly report – the first since Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s June presidential election – said Iran has installed about 1,000 advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges since May and is set to test them.
“This IAEA report makes clear that Iran continues to rapidly expand its nuclear weapons program and underscores the urgency of Congress passing new Iran sanctions legislation into law,” Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
Legislation that would tighten sanctions on Tehran has been making its way through the U.S. Congress this year.
The House of Representatives passed a bill on harsher sanctions in late July that seeks to push Iran’s oil exports down another 1 million barrels per day in a year. The Senate Banking Committee is expected to pass its version of a tougher sanctions bill in September, although it is unclear whether the 1 million bpd goal would be included.
“ Iran has continued to install IR-2m centrifuges in one of the units” at the Natanz site in central Iran, the IAEA report said. The Islamic Republic now has 1,008 high-tech IR-2M centrifuges, up from 698 cited in the IAEA’s last report in May.
These were however “under vacuum,” the report said. “None of the IR-2m centrifuges ... had been fed” with natural uranium, it explained.
The IR-2 centrifuges are of particular concern as they would allow Tehran to enrich uranium at a faster rate, allowing it to obtain the amount of fissile material needed for a nuclear bomb more quickly, if it wished to go down that path.
Earlier Wednesday, the IAEA said that talks with Iran over its controversial nuclear program would resume on Sept. 27. The talks were held up by the presidential election in Iran in June.
“Given the nature and extent of credible information available to the agency about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program, it remains essential and urgent for Iran to engage with it on the substance of the agency’s concerns,” the report said of the upcoming meeting.
Parallel talks between Tehran and the six powers – the so-called P5+1 composed of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – have also been stalled since April.
On top of the new-generation IR-2m centrifuges, Iran was also installing more of the older IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz: The figure was now 15,416 from 13,555 three months ago.
At the Arak heavy-water reactor, another site of concern as it could produce plutonium for a nuclear device, the reactor vessel has been “placed into position” although other components had yet to be installed.
The IAEA said Iran had informed the agency that the reactor’s planned start date in the first quarter of 2014 was “not achievable.”
Still the watchdog deplored Tehran’s failure since 2006 to provide up-to-date design information about the site, which “is having an increasingly adverse impact on the agency’s ability to verify” developments there.
Western powers hope however that Rouhani, who replaced the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could breathe new life into efforts to resolve the nuclear issue.
On Aug. 6, he said Iran was ready for “serious” talks on its nuclear program without delay.
During his role as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, Rouhani accepted the suspension of the enrichment program.
An international official close to the dossier said the agency would be “anxious to see” how negotiations would be carried out under the new president and “how that is going to affect” talks.
The report by the IAEA’s director-general, Yukiya Amano, comes ahead of a meeting of the watchdog’s 35-member board of governors on Sept. 9-13 in Vienna.