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Iran officially imposes curbs on UN nuclear inspections

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Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses in a conference in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Following the conference Zarif told journalists the country has started implementing a law passed by the parliament to curb UN inspections into its nuclear program and would no longer share surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities with the U.N. agency. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

TEHRAN – Iran officially started restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities Tuesday, a bid to pressure European countries and President Joe Biden's administration to lift crippling economic sanctions and restore the 2015 nuclear deal.

World powers slammed the restrictions as a “dangerous” move.

It came as the International Atomic Energy Agency reported in a confidential document distributed to member countries and seen by The Associated Press that Iran had added 17.6 kilograms (38.8 pounds) of uranium enriched up to 20% to its stockpile as of Feb. 16.

It was the first official confirmation of plans Iran announced in January to enrich to the greater purity, which is just a technical step away from weapons-grade levels and far past the 3.67% purity allowed under the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

Iran also increased its total enriched uranium stockpile to 2,967.8 kilograms (6,542.9 pounds), up from 2,442.9 kilograms (5,385.7 pounds) reported on Nov. 2, the IAEA reported.

Iran's violations of the JCPOA and the move Tuesday to limit international inspections underscore the daunting task facing Biden as he seeks to reverse former President Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S. unilaterally out of the deal in 2018. That left Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia struggling to keep it alive.

The JCPOA was the most significant pact between Iran and major world powers since its 1979 Islamic revolution, and Germany, France and Britain stressed their commitment Tuesday to preserving it, urging Iran to “stop and reverse all measures that reduce transparency.”

“The E3 are united in underlining the dangerous nature of this decision,” the European powers said in a statement. “It will significantly constrain the IAEA's access to sites and to safeguards-relevant information.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said a new law had gone into effect Tuesday morning, under which Iran will no longer share surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities with the U.N. agency.

“We never gave them live video, but (recordings) were given daily and weekly,” Zarif said of the IAEA's access to information recorded by camera monitors. “The tape recording of our (nuclear) program will be kept in Iran.”

The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Tehran’s civilian nuclear agency, has promised to preserve the tapes for three months, then hand them over to the IAEA — but only if granted sanctions relief. Otherwise, Iran has vowed to erase the tapes, narrowing the window for a diplomatic breakthrough.

Since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA, Iran has gradually been violating its restrictions to put pressures on the remaining nations to come up with economic incentives to offset crippling American sanctions.

Besides surpassing the purity and stockpiles allowed, Iran has also been spinning advanced centrifuges and producing uranium metal.

Zarif stressed in a tweet Tuesday that Iran's new limits on nuclear inspections and other violations of the pact are reversible, insisting that the U.S. move first to revive the deal.

In a show of defiance, Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei outlined further developments in Iran's nuclear program on Tuesday. Over the last three weeks, he told reporters, Iran has installed and started feeding gas into an additional 148 high-tech IR2-m centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear enrichment facility and its fortified nuclear complex at Fordo, bringing the total number of centrifuges to up to 492. Another set of 492 centrifuges will be installed in the coming month, he said.

He added that Iran has installed two cascades of even more advanced centrifuges at its nuclear enrichment facilities, but did not specify where.

On Monday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also signaled Iran would refuse to capitulate to U.S. pressure over its nuclear program. Khamenei said that Iran could enrich uranium up to 60% purity if necessary, but stressed the country forbids nuclear weapons. Tehran has long insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, such as power generation and medical research.

Before the nuclear deal, in 2013, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium was already more than 7,000 kilograms (7.72 tons) with higher enrichment, but it didn’t pursue a bomb.

The Biden administration has said it’s ready to join talks with Iran and world powers to discuss a return to the deal. Zarif responded to the overture cautiously Tuesday, saying Iran is “assessing the idea of an unofficial meeting" with the parties to the accord “in which America is invited as a non-member.”

In further diplomatic moves, the new U.S. administration rescinded the Trump-imposed U.N. sanctions and eased restrictions on the domestic travel of Iranian diplomats posted to the United Nations.

Rabiei praised the steps on Tuesday but threw cold water on hopes for a swift revival of the deal.

“While we consider this as putting America on a constructive path, we see (the steps) as extremely insufficient," he said.

Before Iran implemented its new restrictions on IAEA inspections, the agency's director-general, Rafael Grossi, negotiated a temporary deal during an emergency weekend trip to Tehran. It allowed him to keep the same number of inspectors on the ground.

In the report to members, the IAEA said the understanding would enable the agency to continue with its necessary JCPOA verification and monitoring activities for three months.

It added it would also "enable the agency to resume its full verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA if and when Iran resumes its implementation of those commitments.”

The IAEA also said it was still awaiting answers from Iran on three sites where inspections had revealed traces of uranium of man-made origin

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Associated Press writer David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report. Metzler reported from Vienna.