Iran alleged Thursday that the U.N. inspector it blocked from a nuclear site last week tested positive for suspected traces of explosive nitrates. The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, did not immediately comment.
The allegation made by Iranian representative Kazem Gharib Abadi came as Iran injected uranium gas into centrifuges at its underground Fordo nuclear complex early Thursday, taking its most-significant step away from its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
These latest steps by Iran put additional pressure on Europe to offer Tehran a way to sell its crude oil abroad despite the U.S. sanctions imposed on the country since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal over a year ago.
The incident happened at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, which includes the majority of the centrifuges now enriching uranium in the country. The entrance of Natanz includes equipment to check for traces of nitrates, Abadi said.
“The detector’s alarm went off and it was signaling to a specific person,” 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. Abadi alleged when she came back, she no longer tested positive. He said the team took samples from the bathroom, as well as seized her handbag.
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,” Abadi said.
This marks the first known time of Iran blocking an inspector amid the tensions.
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. “If the Iranian regime thinks it can test the international community’s resolve on this issue, then we assure you the United States will not waver.”
Meanwhile, Iran began to inject gas into centrifuges after midnight at Fordo, a facility built under a mountain north of the Shiite holy city of Qom, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said. Fordo’s 1,044 centrifuges previously spun without uranium gas for enrichment under the deal, which saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
The deal had called for Fordo to become “a nuclear, physics and technology center.” Now, it’s become an active nuclear site again and represents the most-serious step away from the deal it has taken amid the tensions.
A U.N. official from the IAEA witnessed the injection, Iran said. The centrifuges ultimately will begin enriching uranium up to 4.5%, which is just beyond the limits of the nuclear deal, but nowhere near weapons-grade levels of 90%.
Iran acknowledged Fordo’s existence in 2009 amid a major pressure campaign by Western powers over Tehran’s nuclear program. The West feared Iran could use its program to build a nuclear weapon; Iran insists the program is for peaceful purposes. Experts have suggested that the limits imposed under the 2015 deal, when obeyed, meant that Iran would need a year to gather enough material to build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so — a time known as a “breakout period.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Iran’s decision to inject gas into the Fordo centrifuges in a statement Thursday. He made no reference to Trump’s decision to leave the deal in May 2018, sparking the crisis.
“Iran’s expansion of proliferation-sensitive activities raises concerns that Iran is positioning itself to have the option of a rapid nuclear breakout,” Pompeo said. “It is now time for all nations to reject this regime’s nuclear extortion and take serious steps to increase pressure.”
Pompeo did not elaborate on what those serious steps should be. The U.S. earlier this week imposed sanctions on members of the inner circle of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran injected uranium gas into centrifuges at its underground Fordo nuclear complex early Thursday, taking its most-significant step away from its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Tehran meanwhile also acknowledged blocking an official from the International Atomic Energy Agency from visiting its nuclear site at Natanz last week, the first known case of a United Nations inspector being blocked amid heightened tensions over its atomic program.
These latest steps put additional pressure on Europe to offer Iran a way to sell its crude oil abroad despite the U.S. sanctions imposed on the country since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal over a year ago.
The gas injection began after midnight at Fordo, a facility built under a mountain north of the Shiite holy city of Qom, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said. A UN official from the IAEA witnessed the injection, it said. The centrifuges ultimately will begin enriching uranium up to 4.5%, which is just beyond the limits of the nuclear deal, but nowhere near weapons-grade levels of 90%.
Fordo's 1,044 centrifuges previously spun without uranium gas for enrichment under the deal, which saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. The deal had called for Fordo to become "a nuclear, physics and technology center."
Iran acknowledged Fordo's existence in 2009 amid a major pressure campaign by Western powers over Tehran's nuclear program. The West feared Iran could use its program to build a nuclear weapon; Iran insists the program is for peaceful purposes.
Meanwhile, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said it had blocked a female IAEA inspector from its facility at Natanz, where centrifuges also enrich uranium. Iran said an alarm went off while the woman tried to enter the facility, causing officials there to stop her from going in.
The state-run IRNA news agency, citing Iran's atomic agency, said the woman was stopped "due to concerns over carrying suspicious materials." The inspector later left Iran without completing her visit, it said.
This marks the first known time of Iran blocking an inspector amid the tensions. Iran said it planned to address its decision to block the inspector at a meeting of the IAEA Thursday in Vienna.
Iranian officials repeatedly have stressed the steps taken so far, including going beyond the deal's enrichment and stockpile limitations, could be reversed if Europe offers a way for it to avoid U.S. sanctions choking off its crude oil sales abroad. However, a European trade mechanism has yet to take hold and a French-proposed $15 billion line of credit has not emerged.
The collapse of the nuclear deal coincided with a tense summer of mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied the allegation, though it did seize oil tankers and shoot down a U.S. military surveillance drone.
Iraqi officials say the country's main port has reopened after being blocked by protesters for five days.
The officials said scores of trucks were picking up imports Thursday from Umm Qasr port in the country's south. The port houses a vital oil terminal and is an entry point for food and basic goods.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Iraq has been gripped by protests in the capital Baghdad and across most of its southern provinces. Scores of people have been killed by security forces.
The protests are a continuation of the economically-driven demonstrations that began in early October. They've since turned deadly as security forces cracked down, using live ammunition.
The World Bank called on Lebanese authorities Wednesday to urgently form a new government that can address the country's worsening economic situation, warning that Lebanon "does not have the luxury of time to waste."
The stark warning came in a statement issued after a meeting between the World Bank's regional director and President Michel Aoun amid ongoing mass protests and a severe economic and financial crisis.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned his government on Oct. 29 in response to the unprecedented protests which have swept Lebanon starting in the middle of last month. The protesters erupted over proposed new taxes and have snowballed into calls for the government to resign and for the entire political elite that has ruled Lebanon since the end of its 1975-90 civil war to step aside.
The protests have paralyzed the country and kept banks shuttered for two weeks. Lebanon, one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, already was dealing with a severe fiscal crisis before the protests began, one rooted in years of heavy borrowing and expensive patronage networks run by entrenched political parties.
The protesters are calling for the formation of a technocrat government that would get to work immediately on addressing Lebanon's economic crisis. They accuse officials of dragging their feet on that.
Following his meeting with Aoun, World Bank Regional Director Saroj Kumar Jha said he urged swift measures to ensure Lebanon's economic and financial stability. "The politics has most attention, but economy has the most risks," he said.
"With every passing day, the situation is becoming more acute and this would make recovery extremely challenging," he added. "Lebanon does not have the luxury of time to waste to redress issues that need immediate attention."
On Wednesday, protesters rallied outside state institutions and ministries to keep up the pressure on officials to form a new government. Dozens of people gathered outside the justice, education and other ministries as well as the state-run electricity company and the tax department.
In their third week, protesters have adopted a new tactic of surrounding state institutions to disrupt their work.
The protesters agreed on Tuesday to shift the focus of the protests and open main roads to ease up traffic and allow people to get back to work.
Two more Iraqi protesters have been killed in renewed clashes in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, a flashpoint in weeks of anti-government demonstrations, a protester and a medic said Wednesday.
They said the two were killed in overnight clashes near the provincial headquarters in the city. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks in the capital, Baghdad, and across the Shiite south, demanding sweeping political change. The protesters complain of widespread corruption, a lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, with regular power cuts despite the country's vast oil reserves.
The protesters have focused their anger on Shiite political parties and militias, many of which have close ties to Iran . Across the south, they have attacked party and militia headquarters, setting some of them ablaze.
In Karbala, protesters attacked the Iranian Consulate earlier this week, hurling firebombs over its walls. Security forces killed at least three people and wounded several others as they dispersed the protest. Days earlier, masked men suspected of links to the security forces opened fire on a demonstration in Karbala, killing at least 18 people.
In the capital, Baghdad, protesters clashed with security forces on a fourth bridge across the Tigris River, after previous clashes forced the closure of three other bridges, paralyzing traffic. The protests have been centered in Tahrir Square, on the eastern bank of the Tigris, and the demonstrators have been trying to reach the Green Zone that is located on the other side, which houses government offices and foreign embassies.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement calling on the government to "engage seriously and urgently with Iraqi citizens who are demanding reform."
"We deplore the killing and kidnapping of unarmed protesters, threats to freedom of expression, and the cycle of violence taking place," it said. "Iraqis must be free to make their own choices about the future of their nation."
Iraqi security forces have killed at least 269 protesters in two major waves of demonstrations since early October. Iraq's leaders have promised reforms and early elections, but the process they have laid out could take months, and the protests have only grown in recent days.