VIENNA — Iran is ratcheting up pressure on the U.N. agency responsible for overseeing the country’s nuclear program, accusing its inspectors of engaging in spying and sabotage and threatening to restrict U.N. access to Iranian nuclear facilities.
So strident has been Iran’s criticism of the International Atomic Energy Agency in recent weeks that some Western officials fear that the country is preparing to officially downgrade its cooperation with the nuclear watchdog. The Vienna-based agency is the only international body allowed to routinely visit Iran’s most sensitive nuclear installations.
The IAEA’s notoriously troubled relations with the Islamic Republic deteriorated sharply last month after Iran reported attacks by alleged saboteurs on electrical grids serving its two uranium-enrichment plants. Since then, Iranian officials have alleged the agency was directly involved in the attacks, accusations leveled in private meetings as well as in public statements, according to Western diplomats and government officials briefed on the exchanges.
IAEA officials initially rejected the allegations as absurd. Since then, the agency’s internal assessments have been unable to confirm that the attacks occurred at all, according to two European diplomats privy to the internal review.
Iran’s nuclear facilities are known to have been targeted by saboteurs in the past, notably in a series of covert cyberattacks attributed to the United States and Israel. But the lack of supporting evidence for any IAEA involvement in recent sabotage has underscored concerns that Iran is seeking a pretext for curtailing cooperation with U.N. inspectors, the diplomats said.
The diplomats and other Western officials also note that IAEA delegations visiting Iran in recent weeks have been subjected to unusual intimidation. Since mid-August, U.N. teams have been the targets of anti-IAEA protests in the capital, and inspectors have been privately warned that they could be held responsible for any future attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities by saboteurs or foreign governments, the officials and diplomats said.
“The message from Iran was: ‘If we have to reduce cooperation with you, the IAEA itself will be to blame. And if we get attacked, the IAEA and its leaders will be responsible,’ ” said one European diplomat who was briefed on the encounters. He spoke on the condition of anonymity in discussing the IAEA’s internal assessments of the events.
The diplomat described a “climate of intimidation” inside Iran that could, if it continues, erode the agency’s ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA, which inspects nuclear installations around the world to guard against the secret diversion of nuclear technology for military purposes, declined to comment for this article.
Iran’s representative to the IAEA also declined an interview request.
The heightened tensions come at a time when Iran’s government faces unprecedented pressure at home and abroad, including economic upheavals and threats of a military strike by Israel on the country’s nuclear facilities. Protests erupted in Tehran last week after the country’s currency, the rial, shed 40 percent of its value, driving up prices for basic commodities.
The economic woes stem in part from international sanctions targeting Iran’s banking and energy sectors, part of a Western-led effort to force Iranian officials to rein in the country’s nuclear program. So far, Iran has remained defiant, and some experts worry that the country, if threatened with foreign attack or profound economic crisis, could decide to kick IAEA inspectors out of the country and launch a crash effort to manufacture nuclear weapons, using its existing stockpile of enriched uranium.
Iran insists it has no interest in making atomic bombs.
Iran has frequently clashed with the IAEA in the past over allegations that U.N. inspectors provided intelligence to Western governments. But in recent weeks the criticism has taken a harsher tone, former inspectors and Iran experts said. Olli Heinonen, a retired senior official who once led inspection teams in Iran, described the sabotage accusations as unusual and worrisome.
Iran’s chief nuclear official, Fereydoun Abbasi, first raised the allegations in September when he told IAEA officials that the country’s two enrichment plants had been targeted by saboteurs in attacks that coincided with a visit by U.N. inspectors to the country in August.
While providing few details, Abbasi said attackers had damaged electrical power systems for the country’s underground enrichment plant near the city of Qom and also targeted the electrical infrastructure for Iran’s largest uranium plant, near the town of Natanz. Backup generators had prevented a serious loss of power that might have damaged the plants’ thousands of gas centrifuges used to make enriched uranium, he said.
IAEA officials rebuked Abbasi for making such an unsubstantiated claim. But a few days later, he repeated the charge in a Sept. 18 speech before members of the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors.
“Terrorists and saboteurs might have intruded the agency and might be making decisions covertly,” he said.
IAEA inspectors were unaware of the alleged attack when they toured the two plants in August and saw no signs of problems in either facility, according two European diplomats briefed on the results of the visit.
Some longtime Iran observers say the accusations could be aimed at deflecting blame for a breakdown in cooperation with the IAEA in recent months. Iran has refused, for example, to allow inspectors to visit the Parchin military base, where Western officials suspect Iran conducted experiments on nuclear warhead design.
“They may feel that they have to come up with an excuse for not cooperating on Parchin,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, an arms-control expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Or, they also may be looking for ways to ratchet down on access if another set of sanctions are imposed.”
U.S. officials fear that even a temporary halt in U.N. oversight could provide Iran with an opportunity to launch a crash program to build a nuclear weapon. An engineering study prepared by a Washington research group projects that Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear device in two to four months, using its existing stockpiles of low-enriched uranium.
But under the most likely scenarios, Iran would seek to produce a small arsenal of at least four nuclear bombs, a feat that would require about a year, said the report by the Institute for Science and International Security. Additional time would be required to assemble a working warhead that would fit on one of Iran’s medium-range missiles.
“Although Iran’s breakout times are shortening, an Iranian breakout in the next year could not escape detection by the IAEA or the United States,” said the report, a draft of which was provided to The Washington Post.
The report concluded that a rush to assemble a nuclear weapon would entail risks that Iranian leaders may be unwilling to take. “The United States and its allies maintain the ability to respond forcefully to any Iranian decision to break out,” it said.