TEHRAN (Dispatches) -- Iran resumed uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow plant south of Tehran Thursday in a new step back from its commitments under a landmark 2015 nuclear deal.
Engineers began feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into the plant's mothballed enrichment centrifuges in "the first minutes of Thursday", the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said. A UN official from the IAEA witnessed the injection.
The suspension of uranium enrichment at the long-secret plant was one of the restrictions on its nuclear program Iran had agreed to in return for the lifting of sanctions.
The resumption of enrichment at Fordow is Iran's fourth step away from the agreement after the U.S. abandoned it last year and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, while other signatories failed to provide the Islamic Republic with anything which could convince the country into observing its obligations.
Iran is now enriching uranium to 4.5 percent, exceeding the 3.67 percent limit set by the 2015 deal but less than the 20 percent level it had previously operated to.
Tehran has emphasized that all of the steps it has taken are transparent and swiftly reversible if the remaining parties to the agreement find a way to get around US sanctions.
"All these activities have been carried out under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency," the Iranian nuclear organization said.
IAEA Inspector Caught Red Handed
Tehran said on Thursday that it had withdrawn the credentials of one IAEA inspector last week after she tested positive for suspected traces of explosive nitrates.
"The detector’s alarm went off and it was signaling to a specific person,” Iranian representative Kazem Gharib Abadi he said. "They have repeated this procedure again and again, and unfortunately, the results were the same all the way for only that specific inspector.”
As they waited for a female employee to search the inspector, the woman went off to the bathroom. Gharib Abadi said when she came back, she no longer tested positive. He said the team took samples from the bathroom, as well as seized her handbag.
Gharib Abadi said he hoped further tests by Iran and the IAEA would explain what happened. Iran’s nuclear industry has been targeted by sabotage and its scientists assassinated in the past.
"Needless to say that Iran, like all other members of the agency, cannot condone any behavior or action which may be against the safety and security of its nuclear installations, especially ... considering the past sabotage attempts in its nuclear facilities,” Gharib Abadi said.
The IAEA said that it will "consult with Iran with a view to clarifying the situation.” It did not elaborate.
Nitrates are a common fertilizer. However, when mixed with proper amounts of fuel, the material can become an explosive as powerful as TNT. Swab tests, common at airports and other secure facilities, can detect its presence on the skin or objects.
Jackie Wolcott, the U.S. representative to the IAEA, earlier called the inspector’s rejection an "outrageous provocation.”
"All board members need to make clear now and going forward that such actions are completely unacceptable, will not be tolerated and must have consequences,” Wolcott said in remarks released to journalists.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Iran’s decision to inject gas into the Fordow centrifuges. In a statement, he made no reference to Trump’s decision to leave the deal in May 2018, which sparked the crisis.
The resumption of enrichment at Fordow comes after the expiry of a deadline Tehran set for the remaining parties to the nuclear agreement to come up with a mechanism that would allow foreign firms to continue doing business with Iran without incurring U.S. penalties.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concern about Tehran's announcements but said European powers should do their part.
"They are demanding that Iran fulfill all (obligations) without exception but are not giving anything in return," he told reporters in Moscow.
The Kremlin has previously called sanctions against Iran "unprecedented and illegal".
French President Emmanuel Macron said Iran had made "grave" decisions and its resumption of uranium enrichment was a "profound change" from Tehran's previous position.
The next few weeks will be dedicated to increasing pressure on Iran to return within the framework of the pact, the French president said during a trip to Beijing, adding that this must be "accompanied by an easing of some sanctions".
More Important Steps Yet to Be Taken
Iran’s ambassador to the UK described the reduction in Tehran’s commitments as a "wake-up call” to other parties, warning European signatories of a crisis over the collapsing accord.
Hamid Baeidinejad told a group of UK mainstream media representatives on Thursday that Tehran’s move was "adopted as a warning to the other sides and the international community that we are at a crisis.”
Baeidinejad said Iran will continue to increase its nuclear activity every two months unless it receives the economic benefits it was promised when it signed the nuclear deal with world powers.
"We hope this warning would encourage all other parties to implement their commitments. … Now it depends on the other side — if they don’t take this warning seriously … we will be in a very difficult situation,” he warned.
The Iranian ambassador also dismissed European arguments that it is difficult for them to circumvent the U.S. sanctions.
"They have taken commitments that are defined in very clear terms and they should be able to implement those commitments,” Baeidinejad said.
Muhammad Saeidi, a former deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said Tehran has even more important measures to take if other parties fail to fulfill their commitments.
"I believe in case of other signatories’ failure to live up to their commitments, we have other very important measures which they will witness when the time for the next steps arrives,” he told Tabnak news website, stressing that the next steps will be more important than the fourth one.