Iran has begun removing 27 surveillance cameras from nuclear sites across the country, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said on Thursday, further compromising the agency’s ability to track uranium enrichment. from Tehran, which is now closer than ever to military-grade levels.
The development comes a day after the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency censured Tehran for failing to provide “credible information” about man-made nuclear materials found at three undeclared sites in the country.
It also follows months of deadlocked talks to restore the Islamic Republic’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Tensions remain high across the Middle East over the collapse of the deal as US sanctions and rising global food prices stifle Iran’s struggling economy, putting further pressure on his government and his people.
“This, of course, poses a serious challenge to our ability to continue working there,” warned Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the IAEA.
He added that if a deal could not be reached to restore the cameras in three to four weeks, “it would be a fatal blow” to Iran’s tattered nuclear deal. Already, Grossi has warned that without the cameras, Iran could manufacture centrifuges and divert them to unknown destinations.
“When we lose that, anyone can guess,” he added.
Iran did not immediately acknowledge that it was withdrawing the 27 cameras, although it had earlier threatened more punitive action. State media released footage Thursday of workers cutting power to two IAEA cameras.
“We hope they will come to their senses and respond to Iran’s cooperation with cooperation,” Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s nuclear program, said Wednesday of IAEA officials. “It is not acceptable that they display inappropriate behavior while Iran continues to cooperate.”
Grossi made the comments during a hastily called press conference in Vienna, standing next to an example of cameras installed across Iran. He said Iran would remove IAEA cameras from sites including in Tehran, the Natanz underground nuclear enrichment facility, the Isfahan facility and the Arak heavy water reactor in Khondab.
“About 40” IAEA cameras would remain active in Iran, Grossi said, although Tehran has already withheld IAEA footage since February 2021 as a pressure tactic to restore the atomic deal.
“We are in a very tense situation with the negotiations on the relaunch of the [nuclear deal] at a low level,” Grossi added. “Now we add that to the picture. So, as you can see, it’s not very pleasant.
On Wednesday, Iran said it shut down two devices the IAEA uses to monitor enrichment at Natanz. Grossi acknowledged that on Thursday, saying among the devices removed were the inline enrichment monitor and the flow meter. These monitor the enrichment of uranium gas through piping in enrichment facilities and allow inspectors to monitor the work remotely.
Earlier Thursday, the IAEA said Iran had informed the agency that it planned to install two new IR-6 centrifuge cascades at Natanz. A cascade is a series of centrifuges linked together to rapidly spin uranium gas to enrich it.
An IR-6 centrifuge spins uranium 10 times faster than first-generation centrifuges Iran was once restricted to under its nuclear deal with world powers. In February, Iran had already spun a cascade of IR-6s at its underground facility in Fordo, according to the IAEA.
Iran announced earlier that it plans to install a cascade of IR-6s at Natanz. The IAEA said it “verified” the ongoing installation of this cascade on Monday, while installation of the other two newly promised cascades had yet to begin.
Iran and world powers agreed to the nuclear deal in 2015, which saw Tehran drastically limit its uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-President Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the deal, increasing tensions across the Middle East and triggering a series of attacks and other incidents.
Talks in Vienna on reviving the deal have stalled since April. Since the collapse of the deal, Iran has been using advanced centrifuges and rapidly increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium.
Non-proliferation experts warn that Iran has sufficiently enriched up to 60% purity – a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90% – to make a nuclear weapon if it decides to do so.
Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, although UN experts and Western intelligence agencies say Tehran had an organized military nuclear program until 2003.
Building a nuclear bomb would take Iran even longer if it pursued a weapon, analysts say, though they warn Tehran’s advances make the program more dangerous. Israel has threatened to carry out a pre-emptive strike to stop Iran – and is already suspected in a string of recent killings targeting Iranian officials.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hailed the IAEA board’s vote on Wednesday to censor Tehran as “an important decision that exposes the true face of Iran”.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.