Iran’s Nuclear Saber Rattling Raises More Alarm at UN Watchdog

(Bloomberg) -- The United Nations’ atomic watchdog expects to meet senior Iranian officials next month to discuss growing concern the Persian Gulf nation could build a nuclear weapon in response to escalating tension with Israel.

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International Atomic Energy Agency monitors were disturbed by comments made on April 18 by a top Iranian general that the Islamic Republic could revise its nuclear doctrine if Israel targets its atomic facilities. The remarks were widely taken as a warning that Iran could switch to building a warhead, having long said its atomic capability is only for civil purposes.

Read More: Iran Says Israeli Threats May Spark Shift in Nuclear Policy

“Statements by a very high defense establishment official like the general are a source of concern,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Wednesday in an interview in the Dutch port of Rotterdam. “The Middle East is in a very fragile situation. There is the need for a respectful but very serious conversation with them.”

Tit-for-tat missile strikes between Israel and Iran this month have added urgency to the IAEA’s years-long search to uncover the truth of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. While the IAEA carries out daily inspections of declared atomic facilities, suspicions linger over whether Iranian engineers could be concealing work used for military purposes. Tehran has blocked the agency’s investigation into uranium detected at undeclared sites.

Read More: How Close Is Iran to Having a Nuclear Weapon?: QuickTake

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Ahmad Haghtalab didn’t specify what changes he had in mind for Iran’s nuclear doctrine, though warned an attack on the country’s nuclear facilities would prompt return fire on Israel’s own sites.

He was speaking after Iran launched a barrage of some 300 drones and missiles on Israel in response to a strike in Syria that killed several Iranian officers on April 1. Israel responded on Friday with a more limited attack, allowing both sides to pause hostilities for now.

A senior Iranian lawmaker said on Wednesday that his country is technically able to enrich uranium to 90% purity “for warheads” in “half a day or let’s say one week,” but said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains opposed to developing nuclear weapons.

Javad Karimi-Ghodoosi, a member of the chamber’s national security commission, made the comments in a video statement posted on X.

Chariots of Fire

Israel has long-planned a potential strike package aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, which it considers an existential threat. Developed in the wake of Iran’s now defunct nuclear deal with world powers, Israel tested its attack strategy during the so-called Chariots of Fire war simulation in 2022.

Those plans should never be put into action, said Grossi.

“This as a reflection of a world where huge tensions are in play and where some see nuclear infrastructure as a good way to take advantage,” Grossi said. Sides need to avoid weaponization of industrial activities that might have trans-boundary environmental and human consequences, he said.

Israel’s April 19 attack struck “not too far away” from one of Iran’s premier nuclear research facilities in Isfahan, Grossi said. “I personally have been urging utmost restraint. We hope we will not see such occurrence again.”

--With assistance from Golnar Motevalli and Patrick Sykes.

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