Iran has resumed production of equipment for advanced centrifuges at a site the United Nations’ atomic-energy agency has been unable to monitor or gain access to for months, diplomats familiar with the activities said, presenting a new challenge for the Biden administration as it prepares for nuclear talks. The renewed work has raised concerns among Western diplomats who say it could allow Iran to start secretly diverting centrifuge parts if the Iranian government choses to build a covert nuclear-weapons program, although they say there is no evidence at this point that it has done so.
Iran resumed work on a limited scale in late August at an assembly plant in Karaj, a city west of Tehran, and has since accelerated its production, allowing it to manufacture an unknown number of rotors and bellows for more advanced centrifuges, diplomats said. Iran had stopped work at Karaj in June after a sabotage attack that the Iranian government blamed on Israel, which has not acknowledged responsibility. According to the diplomats, Iran has now produced significant amounts of centrifuge parts since late August, with one of the diplomats saying it has produced parts for at least 170 advanced centrifuges. Centrifuges are used to spin enriched uranium into higher levels of purity either for civilian use or, at 90% purity, for nuclear weapons.
Iran has withdrawn from most commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal since the Trump administration reimposed sanctions in November 2018. In February, Iran scaled back International Atomic Energy Agency oversight of many of its nuclear-related sites, including Karaj, but agreed to keep agency cameras and recording devices in place at Karaj and some other sites. All of the recent work at Karaj has taken place without any official IAEA monitoring, the diplomats said. Iran significantly tightened security at Karaj after the June alleged sabotage, the latest in a series of explosions at its nuclear facilities over the past two years.
Iran’s production of centrifuges is a critical issue in talks beginning on November 29 to revive the nuclear deal, which the Biden administration is hoping to restore. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement in May 2018. The original deal was built around the idea that Iran should be kept at least one year away from being able to produce enough nuclear fuel for one bomb. Since the US exited the deal, Iran has installed more than 1,000 more advanced centrifuges, which are able to enrich uranium more quickly. That has helped reduce Iran’s current breakout time to as little as a month.
The IAEA has echoed Western concerns that Iran’s nuclear activities are no longer being fully tracked, saying in September that Iran’s failure to restore cameras to Karaj is seriously compromising the agency’s ability to ensure continuous knowledge about the nuclear program. According to one of the diplomats familiar with Iran’s program, Iran has installed the centrifuges whose key parts were produced at Karaj at Iran’s underground, heavily fortified, Fordow site. The diplomat said there is no evidence the centrifuges parts have been diverted elsewhere but “as the number of unmonitored centrifuges increases, the likelihood for this scenario increases.” There is no evidence Iran has a covert nuclear program, the diplomats said, and Iran’s core nuclear facilities, including Fordow and Natanz, which produce enriched uranium, remain under IAEA oversight. Iran says its nuclear activities are purely peaceful.