BERLIN -- The U.N. nuclear watchdog harshly criticized Iran on Saturday for effectively barring several of its most experienced inspectors from monitoring the country's disputed program.
The strongly worded statement came amid long-standing tensions between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with monitoring a nuclear program that Western nations have long suspected is aimed at eventually developing a nuclear weapon. Iran insists the program is peaceful.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the agency, said Iran had withdrawn the designation of "several experienced Agency inspectors," barring them from taking part in the monitoring of its program.
"Iran has effectively removed about one third of the core group of the Agency's most experienced inspectors designated for Iran," he said.
Grossi went on to "strongly condemn this disproportionate and unprecedented unilateral measure," saying it "constitutes an unnecessary blow to an already strained relationship between the IAEA and Iran."
Iran's Foreign Ministry linked the move to what it said was an attempt by the United States and three European countries to misuse the body "for their own political purposes." He appeared to be referring to Britain, France and Germany, which said Thursday they would maintain sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
"Iran had previously warned about the consequences of such political abuses, including the attempt to politicize the atmosphere of the agency," Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency reported earlier this month that Iran had slowed the pace at which it is enriching uranium to nearly weapons-grade levels. That was seen as a sign that Tehran was trying to ease tensions after years of strain between it and the U.S.
Iran and the U.S. are negotiating a prisoner swap and the release of billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korea.
Information for this article was contributed by Amir Vahdat of The Associated Press.