Pompeo slams Iran 'intimidation' of IAEA inspector as 'outrageous'

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks with German Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz at the Ministry of Finance in Berlin, Germany, on Friday. America's top diplomat is on a two-day tour of Germany ahead of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. — AFP

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday slammed Tehran's treatment of an inspector with the UN's nuclear watchdog agency last week as "an outrageous and unwarranted act of intimidation."

The top US diplomat said Iran "detained" the inspector, who the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said had been briefly prevented from leaving Iran.

Iran said Thursday it had canceled the inspector's accreditation after she triggered an alarm last week at the entrance to the Natanz uranium enrichment plant.

The alarm during a check at the entrance to the plant in central Iran had raised concerns that she could be carrying a "suspect product" on her, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said in a statement posted online.

As a result, she was denied entry, it added, without specifying whether or not anything had been found in her possession.

Iran's ambassador to the IAEA Kazem Gharib Abadi told reporters after a special agency meeting in Vienna that after setting off the alarms on October 28, the woman "sneaked out" to the bathroom while waiting for a more thorough inspection with a detector that can find a range of explosive materials.

After her return, the alarms did not go off again, but authorities found contamination in the bathroom and later on her empty handbag during a house search.

Iran said IAEA officials were present for all the searches.

The IAEA said Thursday that her treatment was "not acceptable."

"The United States fully supports the IAEA's monitoring and verification activities in Iran, and we are alarmed at Iran's lack of adequate cooperation," Pompeo said in a statement.

"IAEA inspectors must be allowed to conduct their critical work unimpeded. We call on Iran to immediately resolve all open issues with the IAEA and to afford Agency inspectors the privileges and immunities to which they are entitled."

Iran has been progressively scaling back its commitments under a landmark 2015 deal aimed at reining in Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

The US left the agreement last year and re-imposed sanctions, leaving remaining world powers — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — trying to save the agreement and mitigate the sanctions.

Meanwhile, Iran said Saturday it is now enriching uranium to five percent, after a series of steps back from its commitments under a troubled 2015 accord with major powers.

The deal set a 3.67 percent limit for uranium enrichment but Iran announced it would no longer respect it after Washington unilaterally abandoned the agreement last year and reimposed crippling sanctions.

"Based on our needs and what we have been ordered, we are currently producing five percent," Atomic Energy Organization of Iran spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi told a press conference.

He said Iran has the "capacity to produce five percent, twenty percent, sixty percent, or any percentage" of enriched uranium, a claim often repeated by Tehran.

Uranium enrichment is the sensitive process that produces fuel for nuclear power plants but also, in highly extended form, the fissile core for a warhead.

The current five percent level exceeds the limit set by the accord but is less than the 20 percent Iran had previously operated and far less than the 90 percent level required for a warhead.

In its fourth step away from the agreement, Iran resumed enrichment at the Fordow plant south of Tehran on Thursday, with engineers feeding uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) into the plant's mothballed enrichment centrifuges.

Iran was already enriching uranium at another plant in Natanz.

Tehran emphasizes the measures it has taken are swiftly reversible if the remaining parties to the deal — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — find a way to get around US sanctions.

On July 1, Iran said it had increased its stockpile of enriched uranium to beyond a 300-kilogramme maximum set by the deal, and a week later, it announced it had exceeded the enrichment cap.

The third move had it firing up advanced centrifuges on Sept. 7 to enrich uranium faster and to higher levels.— AFP