Diplomats fear growing power of Iranian factions that want nuclear weapons

<span>Rafael Grossi, the director of the IAEA, said the inspectorate had lost ‘continuity of knowledge’ on many areas of Iran’s nuclear programme. </span><span>Photograph: Lisa Leutner/Reuters</span>
Rafael Grossi, the director of the IAEA, said the inspectorate had lost ‘continuity of knowledge’ on many areas of Iran’s nuclear programme. Photograph: Lisa Leutner/Reuters

There are growing fears among diplomats in the US and Europe that Iran’s largely unmonitored nuclear programme and the destabilisation caused by the Gaza conflict are strengthening the hand of Iranian factions that back the development of nuclear weapons.

The Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, has reiterated in recent days that his country is pursuing a civilian nuclear programme for now.

However, at a quarterly meeting last week of the governing board of the nuclear inspectorate, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the US and its European partners issued dire warnings about the threat posed by Iran’s lack of cooperation on its nuclear programme.

The IAEA director, Rafael Grossi, even admitted that that the inspectorate had lost “continuity of knowledge about the production and stock of centrifuges, rotors, heavy water and uranium ore concentrate” in Iran.

Russia’s envoy to the IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov, also warned that the situation was “full of danger and risks getting out of control”, though he placed the blame largely on the US walkout from the 2015 nuclear deal.

The warnings came after the success of hardliners opposed to the 2015 deal constraining Iran’s nuclear programme in last weekend’s parliamentary elections. The elections were highly managed and in Tehran especially were marked by a very low turnout, but the parliament can nevertheless help frame domestic political debate.

The sense of urgency has increased not just because Iran is enriching uranium at such a high level – very close to the 90% regarded as weapons grade – but also because in recent months senior Iranian figures have questioned Tehran’s commitment to a solely civilian nuclear programme.

The regional geopolitical context, including fears of the Gaza conflict metastasising into a wider Iran-Israel war, is also a factor, as is the knowledge that the 2015 nuclear deal expires in October next year, during a possible Donald Trump presidency, leading to the nuclear issue being removed from the UN security council agenda.

Kasra Aarabi, the director of IRGC research at United against Nuclear Iran, said: “The Biden administration’s refusal to impose direct consequences on Iran – despite its consistent acts of aggression since October 7, including an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps proxy attack that killed three US soldiers in Syria – has emboldened the Iranian regime and made supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the IRGC believe the regime can escalate without facing any repercussions.”

Gen Michael Kurilla, the commander of US Central Command, warned the US armed services committee on Thursday that if Iran became a nuclear power it would “change the Middle East for ever”.

He added: “The key to deterrence is for Tehran to understand that this behaviour will have consequences for it,” clarifying that “the deterrence is temporary”.

There have long been concerns about Tehran’s answers – deemed as not credible by the IAEA – to questions about nuclear material found at three facilities and the extent to which weapons inspectors can do their job in the country, but the US is losing patience with what it describes as Iranian stonewalling.

Laura Holgate, the US envoy to the IAEA, told the board last week: “After five years of only limited, last-minute cooperation by Iran; five years of failure by Iran to follow through on its commitments; and five years of unresolved questions related to the presence of nuclear material at undeclared locations in Iran, we cannot allow Iran’s current pattern of behaviour to continue.”

Holgate has asked for a definitive comprehensive report from Grossi on Iran’s compliance before the next board meeting in June when the E3 group – Britain, France and Germany – will have to consider further sanctions via the UN.

The E3 were equally blunt. In a statement, they said: “Iran has continued enriching uranium far beyond what it committed to in the JCPoA [the nuclear deal].

“Iran must now take serious and meaningful steps that show a genuine desire to de-escalate. Recent public statements made in Iran regarding its technical capabilities to produce nuclear weapons go in the opposite direction.”

The UK ambassador to the IAEA, Corinne Kitsell, said: “After so many missed opportunities and lost time, the need for the board to hold Iran accountable to its legal obligations is long overdue.”

Iran insists it is willing to negotiate a follow-on version of the nuclear deal and talks in the background with the deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri, and his European counterparts continue.

At the same time, Tehran is increasingly highlighting Israel’s semi-declared nuclear weapon programme. The Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, told a Geneva disarmament conference in February that the Israeli regime was “the real source of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” in the region.

“It is necessary that the entire nuclear arsenal of this regime be eliminated and all of its nuclear facilities be placed under safeguards and verification mechanisms of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” he said.

Aarabi, of United against Nuclear Iran, said: “The remainder of this year will be extremely volatile, not least as there is growing mood within the regime that the next 10 months may present the best opportunity to move towards weaponisation prior to a potential new administration in White House.”