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Iran slows uranium production after covert diplomacy

(Bloomberg) — Iran has slowed its production of near-weapons-grade uranium in recent months, the latest in a string of signals that the Islamic Republic may be willing to resume talks over the scope of its nuclear program.

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UN nuclear watchdog inspectors told diplomats on Monday that Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium has grown just 7% over the past three months, compared with a 30% increase in the previous quarter. That’s the most dramatic slowdown since the country began purging heavy metal to higher levels in 2021.

The Iranian engineers also took the unusual step of diluting more than 5% of their highly enriched inventory, according to the limited 12-page report prepared by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and reviewed by Bloomberg. And it has halted plans to reconfigure centrifuges that enrich to high purity levels.

The shift follows months of secret diplomacy between Tehran and Washington that led to a deal to free US prisoners held by Iran and release billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen by the US and stranded abroad. .

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While US officials have carefully distinguished this progress from formal nuclear talks, which are still stalled, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has signaled that his country may be willing to discuss potential limitations of its nuclear work with world powers.

Iran has historically modulated uranium production to signal diplomatic readiness and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said last week that the Islamic Republic should be willing to communicate with all other governments “with one limited exception,” a clear reference to Israel, whose right to a state of its own Tehran does not recognize.

Iran began enriching itself up to 60% in retaliation for a 2021 attack on its largest nuclear fuel plant at Natanz, which the country blamed. While that purity is still below the 90% typically used for weapons, it is well above the 300-kilogram limit at 3.67% purity set by the now-defunct nuclear deal that Iran signed in 2015. with the world powers.

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US President Donald Trump later abandoned the pact, reintroducing sanctions and sparking a wave of Iranian nuclear activity. The Biden administration’s attempts to revive the deal stalled after months of talks.

US officials have privately acknowledged that they have already begun easing sanctions on oil sales, allowing Tehran to restore production to its highest level since restrictions came into effect five years ago. With the world’s fourth largest oil reserves, Iran has shipped the most crude oil to China in a decade, and government officials say they are confident production will only grow.

For the global oil markets, there is already talk of a deal between the US and Iran

Monitoring equipment

Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to a 60% purity level rose to 121.6 kilograms (268.1 pounds), compared to 114.1 kilograms in June, the IAEA inspectors concluded. Stocks of 20% enriched fuel grew from 470.9 kilograms to 535.8.

Iran has also allowed new high-precision monitoring equipment installed by the IAEA in May to continue functioning, the report said.

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After the IAEA Board has considered the inspection report, informal contacts can continue on the sidelines of the IAEA General Conference to be held in the Austrian capital on 25 September.

Trust issues

However, even as enrichment decreases, concerns about past activities remain.

A second report also published in the Austrian capital on Monday underlined that significant obstacles remain before the country regains the trust of the IAEA.

“No progress has been made in resolving outstanding security issues,” IAEA Director Rafael Mariano Grossi wrote. His inspectors are still trying to clarify where the uranium particles detected in undeclared locations come from.

Iran has yet to respond to investigators’ questions so that the watchdog “will be able to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.”

(Updates with details everywhere)

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