Iran is slowing the rate at which it’s stockpiling near weapons-grade uranium, the UN nuclear watchdog is expected conclude next month, adding to an easing of Persian Gulf tensions that’s already seen Tehran and Washington discuss the release of prisoners and more oil pour onto global markets.
(Bloomberg) — Iran is slowing the rate at which it’s stockpiling near weapons-grade uranium, the UN nuclear watchdog is expected conclude next month, adding to an easing of Persian Gulf tensions that’s already seen Tehran and Washington discuss the release of prisoners and more oil pour onto global markets.
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are preparing to circulate their quarterly Iran safeguards report ahead of the Vienna-based agency’s Sept. 11 board meeting. Some nuclear officials predict the IAEA data will show Iran is moderating its production of highly-enriched uranium, a key component of an atomic bomb. Iran says its program is peaceful.
“As a diplomatic signal, it would be the first real indication of some degree of deceleration on Tehran’s part after several years of continued expansion,” said Ali Vaez, a director at the International Crisis Group. “As a technical matter, a slowdown of 60% won’t do a great deal to dispel non-proliferation concerns.”
Iran began enriching to 60% in retaliation for a 2021 attack on its largest nuclear fuel plant in Natanz, which it blamed on Israel. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said at the time the activities would continue according to the country’s needs. Iran says the fuel is necessary to produce molybdenum isotopes. The IAEA insists uranium enriched to that level has no practical purpose. Uranium is usually enriched to 90% to produce an atomic warhead.
Expectations that Iran would moderate its uranium enrichment have been mounting following months of secret diplomacy between Tehran and Washington. While avoiding the political pressures associated with a formal deal, the efforts have nevertheless led to an understanding to free American prisoners held by Iran and release billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen by the US and stranded overseas.
Iran said earlier this month that informal contacts could eventually lead to a resumption of nuclear talks. It has modulated uranium output to signal diplomatic readiness in the past and Khamenei said Thursday that Iran should be ready to communicate with all other governments “with one limited exception,” an apparent reference to Israel, whose right to statehood Tehran doesn’t recognize.
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US officials have privately acknowledged they’ve already begun to relax enforcement of sanctions on oil sales, allowing Tehran to restore production to the highest level since the restrictions kicked in five years ago. With the world’s No. 4 oil reserves, Iran has been shipping the most crude to China in a decade and government officials say they’re confident output will only grow.
Rather than reviving efforts to seal a major deal to settle nuclear or complex regional security issues, western nations have now adopted a piecemeal approach aimed at reducing tensions, said Ellie Geranmayeh at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “We should expect that over the coming year, before the US presidential elections, there will be several rounds of ‘de-escalation phases’ — perhaps every few months.”
After the IAEA’s board weighs in on the inspections report, informal contacts may continue on the sidelines of the agency’s general conference convening Sept. 25 in the Austrian capital. Even with a reduction in enrichment, concerns over past activities and Iran’s installed atomic capacity loom.
“Given Iran’s nuclear program is now at its most advanced stage ever, any steps to reduce it capabilities will be welcomed by the West as a way to keep a lid on the situation,” Geranmayeh said. “It is however one step forward, one step back.”
(Adds Supreme Leader in the sixth paragraph)
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