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An illustration of an atom symbol and Iran flag. Image Credit: REUTERS

VIENNA: Inspectors from the United Nations nuclear watchdog found uranium particles enriched up to 83.7 per cent in Iran’s underground Fordo nuclear site, a report seen Tuesday by The Associated Press said.

The confidential quarterly report by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency distributed to member states likely will raise tensions further between Iran and the West over its nuclear programme. That’s even as Tehran already faces internal unrest after months of protests and Western anger over sending bomb-carrying drones to Russia for its war on Ukraine.

The IAEA report only speaks about “particles,” suggesting that Iran isn’t building a stockpile of uranium enriched above 60 per cent — the level it has been enriching at for some time.

The IAEA report described inspectors discovering on January 21 that two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges at Iran’s Fordo facility had been configured in a way “substantially different” to what had been previously declared. The IAEA took samples the following day, which showed particles up to 83.7 per cent purity, the report said.

Unintended fluctuations

“Iran informed the agency that ‘unintended fluctuations’ in enrichment levels may have occurred during the transition period,” the IAEA report said. “Discussions between the agency and Iran to clarify the matter are ongoing.”

The IAEA report also said that it would “further increase the frequency and intensity of agency verification activities” at Fordo after the discovery.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations told the AP that Massimo Aparo, a top IAEA official, visited the Islamic Republic last week “and checked the alleged enrichment rate.”

“Based on Iran’s assessment, the alleged enrichment percentage between Iran and the IAEA is resolved,” the mission contended.

“Due to the IAEA report being prepared before his trip, his trip’s results aren’t in it and hopefully the IAEA director-general will mention it in his oral report to the board of governors” in March.

A spokesman for Iran’s civilian nuclear programme, Behrouz Kamalvandi, also sought last week to portray any detection of uranium particles enriched to that level as a momentary side effect of trying to reach a finished product of 60% purity. However, experts say such a great variance in the purity even at the atomic level would appear suspicious to inspectors.

Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal limited Tehran’s uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms (661 pounds) and enrichment to 3.67 per cent — enough to fuel a nuclear power plant. The US’ unilateral withdraw from the accord in 2018 set in motion a series of attacks and escalations by Tehran over its programme.

Iran has been producing uranium enriched to 60 per cent purity — a level for which nonproliferation experts already say Tehran has no civilian use. The IAEA report put Iran’s uranium stockpile as of February 12 at some 3,760 kilos (8,289 pounds) — an increase of 87.1 kilos (192 pounds) since its last quarterly report in November. Of that, 87.5 kilos (192 pounds) is enriched up to 60 per cent purity.

Uranium at nearly 84 per cent is almost at weapons-grade levels of 90 per cent — meaning any stockpile of that material could be quickly used to produce an atomic bomb if Iran chooses.

Several bombs

While the IAEA’s director-general has warned Iran now has enough uranium to produce “several” bombs , months more would likely be needed to build a weapon and potentially miniaturise it to put it on a missile. The US intelligence community, as recently as this past weekend, has maintained its assessment that Iran isn’t pursuing an atomic bomb.

“To the best of our knowledge, we don’t believe that the supreme leader in Iran has yet made a decision to resume the weaponisation programme that we judge they suspended or stopped at the end of 2003,” CIA Director Williams Burns told CBS’ “Face the Nation” programme. “But the other two legs of the stool, meaning enrichment programs, they’ve obviously advanced very far.”

But Fordo, which sits under a mountain near the holy Shiite city of Qom, some 90 kilometres (55 miles) southwest of Tehran, remains a special concern for the international community. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead U.S. officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.