Iran has alleged that the UN inspector it blocked from a nuclear site last week tested positive for suspected traces of explosive nitrates.
The allegation made by Kazem Gharib Abadi, Iran’s representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), came as Tehran injected uranium gas into centrifuges at its underground Fordo complex on Thursday, taking its most significant step away from its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
These latest steps by Iran put additional pressure on Europe to offer Tehran a way to sell its crude oil abroad despite the US sanctions imposed on the country after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal over a year ago.
The entrance to the nuclear complex includes equipment to check for traces of nitrates, Mr Abadi said.
“The detector’s alarm went off and it was signalling to a specific person,” he said. “They have repeated this procedure again and again, and unfortunately, the results were the same all the way for only that specific inspector.”
As they waited for a female employee to search the inspector, the woman went off to the toilet.
Mr Abadi alleged when she came back, she no longer tested positive. He said the team took samples from the toilet, as well as seizing her handbag.
Mr Abadi said he hoped further tests by Iran and the IAEA would explain what happened. Iran’s nuclear industry has been targeted by sabotage and its scientists assassinated in the past.
“Needless to say that Iran, like all other members of the agency, cannot condone any behaviour or action which may be against the safety and security of its nuclear installations, especially … considering the past sabotage attempts in its nuclear facilities,” Mr Abadi said.
The UN nuclear watchdog said it “does not agree with” Iran’s claims.
The IAEA said that the “agency does not go into details in public about such matters, but based on the information available to us, the agency does not agree with Iran’s characterisation of the situation involving the inspector, who was carrying out official safeguards duties in Iran”.
The IAEA added that it will “consult with Iran with a view to clarifying the situation”.
The incident marks the first known time of Iran blocking an inspector amid the tensions.
Nitrates are a common fertiliser but when mixed with proper amounts of fuel, the material can become an explosive as powerful as TNT. Swab tests, common at airports and other secure facilities, can detect its presence on the skin or objects.
Jackie Wolcott, the US representative to the IAEA, earlier called the inspector’s rejection an “outrageous provocation”.
“All board members need to make clear now and going forward that such actions are completely unacceptable, will not be tolerated, and must have consequences,” Ms Wolcott said in remarks released to journalists. “If the Iranian regime thinks it can test the international community’s resolve on this issue, then we assure you the United States will not waver.”
Her comments also suggested the IAEA would discuss a warehouse near Tehran where Israel alleges it stole a secret “atomic archive” last year. She suggested that inspectors recovered possible nuclear material there.
“Iran has refused to provide — and apparently cannot provide — a credible, verifiable answer to the fundamental question of where the particles detected by the IAEA came from, and where the material and equipment they came from is today,” she said.
Iran has denied the claims by Israel, which is widely believed to have its own undeclared nuclear weapons programme.
Meanwhile, Iran began to inject gas into centrifuges after midnight at Fordo, a facility built under a mountain north of the Shiite holy city of Qom, the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran said.
Fordo’s 1,044 centrifuges previously spun without uranium gas for enrichment under the deal, which saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
The deal had called for Fordo to become “a nuclear, physics and technology centre”.
Now, it has become an active nuclear site again and represents the most serious step away from the deal Iran has taken.
A UN official from the IAEA witnessed the injection, Iran said. The centrifuges ultimately will begin enriching uranium up to 4.5%, which is just beyond the limits of the nuclear deal, but nowhere near weapons-grade levels of 90%.