Iranians Detain Nuclear Inspector In Bizarre Incident At Natanz Enrichment Facility

The United States has condemned an unusual incident which resulted in Iran stripping a UN nuclear watchdog inspector of accreditation while briefly detaining the official

The US envoy to the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) called the incident an "outrageous provocation" while the EU representative said it was "deeply concerned by the incident concerning one IAEA inspector".

It began last week, when the UN nuclear inspector was halted before entering the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. According to Iran’s national atomic agency, she was stopped "due to concerns over carrying suspicious materials".

IAEA file image via Flickr/IAEA

According to the terms of UN inspections under the 2015 JCPOA, IAEA officials possess immediate access authorization to declared nuclear sites across Iran, including daily access the sprawling nuclear enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow.

Iran claims the inspector set off a “security control machine” after which she allegedly tested positive for explosive nitrates, according to allegations by Iran's representative to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi. 

Authorities then stripped her of accreditation and access and even briefly confiscated her travel documents, after which she was forced to leave the country Wednesday, no longer able to carry out her inspection mission. 

The EU issued a statement Thursday underscoring "full confidence in the inspectorate's professionalism and impartiality" and further called upon Iran "to ensure that IAEA inspectors can perform their duties in line with its legally binding safeguards agreement".

Natanz nuclear facility in central Iran, via the AP.

US ambassador to the IAEA Jackie Wolcott issued a more scathing statement, however:

"The detention of an IAEA inspector in Iran is 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," Wolcott said.

Crucially, the almost unprecedented incident occurred just days before Tehran declared it is doubling the number of its advanced centrifuges, further rolling back prior commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. 

It should further be noted that given it's not unheard of for western intelligence agencies to use international UN-connected institutions to conduct infiltration and spying operations, it's likely the Iranians are ultra-cautious and suspicious against the potential for American or Israeli spies accessing the country's most sensitive facilities.