In February this year, Iran began to enrich uranium once again and imposed limitations on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection rights of its nuclear sites.
Its nuclear agency has now announced that it will conduct tests on the country’s Arak nuclear reactor ahead of reactivating it later this year. These moves, along with others, have shown that reviving Iran’s nuclear diplomacy with the West may not be easy as it was believed to be after the election of US President Joe Biden.
A so-called “cold test” of the Arak reactor, which took place on Sunday, included the initial startup of fluid and support systems, a spokesperson for the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation (IAEO) announced.
“We have advanced work in the fields of fuel and storage and so on,” Behrouz Kamalvandi said.
Arak, located 155 miles southwest of the capital Tehran, is a nuclear complex that includes two facilities. The first is a heavy water experimental reactor, and the second is a heavy water production plant.
The 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the P5+1 group) and Tehran, stipulates that the Arak reactor must be shut down, though it allows Iran to continue to produce heavy water on a limited basis.
Iran claims that it is revamping the Arak reactor for medical and agricultural purposes, part of its argument that its nuclear programme is only meant for peaceful purposes. The step follows its decision to limit inspection activities by the IAEA, a key aspect of the nuclear deal’s Additional Protocol Agreement.
Although few details have been provided, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the IAEA would not now have access to its network of surveillance cameras at Iranian nuclear facilities.
However, the international body, if sanctions against Iran are lifted, will still be able to inspect photographs and video footage from the cameras for a three-month period. “There is less access, let’s face it. But we were still able to retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work,” IAEA Chief Rafael Mariano Grossi said.
Iran enriched uranium to 20 per cent purity at its Fordo nuclear plant earlier this year. Though this level is far from the 90 per cent enrichment needed to produce nuclear weapons, the decision to begin enrichment has been a way for Iran to respond to US pressure to stop its nuclear activities ahead of holding talks.
The IAEA stated in early March that Iran had also enriched uranium using a third set of advanced IR-2m centrifuges at its underground Natanz nuclear plant. The JCPOA only gives room for Iran to enrich uranium with its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz.
Iran wants US President Joe Biden to lift the sanctions that his predecessor former president Donald Trump imposed on Iran to force it to negotiate a new nuclear deal, while the US wants the new deal to be negotiated before the sanctions are lifted.
The Iranian leadership wants the P5+1 group of states to help it in meeting this objective.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently said that Iran was capable of enriching uranium up to 60 per cent. He also attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a key supporter of the Iran policy followed by the Trump administration.
“That international Zionist clown has said they won’t allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons. First of all, if we had any such intention, even those more powerful than him wouldn’t be able to stop us,” Khamenei tweeted in February.
In the same month, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman denied that informal talks with the US and the Europeans had taken place. Saeed Khatibzadeh was quoted by local media as saying that “considering the recent actions and statements by the United States and three European powers, Iran does not consider this the time to hold an informal meeting with these countries, as proposed by the EU foreign policy chief.”
Pierre Pahlavi, a professor at the Canadian Forces College and Royal Military College of Canada, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “it is highly unlikely that Iran will accept a new expanded deal if the P5+1 continues with the same demands.”
He said that Biden’s aim was to expand the scale of the JCPOA in order to end the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ “destabilising activities” in the Middle East and “suspend Iran’s ambitious ballistic-missile programme.”
“The Western requirement [of placing under supervision Iran’s nuclear programme and ballistic-missile programme, added to significant decreases in the regional activities sponsored by Tehran] touches on two non-negotiable imperatives of the security policy of the Islamic Republic: (1) the protection of the ‘Iranian fortress’ and preservation of national sovereignty; and (2) the promotion, around Iran, of a regional sphere of influence serving as a strategic buffer zone allowing precisely for the strengthening of the protection of the Iranian fortress,” Pahlavi said.
“For the Iranians, these are two points on which they cannot concede simultaneously without weakening the internal and external sovereignty of the regime.”
Iran is attempting to put Western governments under political and psychological pressure, since the more time it takes to agree on the removal of sanctions, the more developed the Iranian nuclear programme will become.
But this does not mean that Iran is not paying a heavy price for the delay in reaching a breakthrough.
Zarif said on 21 February that the US sanctions had caused a $1 trillion loss for the Iranian economy, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said he fears a “fourth wave” of the Covid-19 pandemic will hit the country.
The Iranian government is thus perhaps looking for a new agreement more than the West, particularly as it has a long list of social, economic and health problems to deal with.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly