4 March 2021

Thursday, 19:33



Known and unknown aspects of Tehran's uranium enrichment policy



In the first week of the new year, the official representative of the Iranian government, Ali Rabia, publicly announced the start of operations to enrich uranium up to 20% at the nuclear plant in Fordow (FFEP).

Iran announced its intention to boost the uranium enrichment back in 2019. In the same year, in response to the resumption of anti-Iranian sanctions by US President Donald Trump and the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement signed between Iran and the six states (five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), Tehran completely refused to carry out its obligations under the agreement. In November 2019, the Iranian government announced it was doubling the number of centrifuges at the Natanz Enrichment Facility.


The expected unexpected solution

Iran began a gradual withdrawal from fulfilling its obligations under the nuclear deal almost in the same period. Initially, it boosted the production of enriched uranium and heavy water. This was followed by Tehran's announcement to increase the uranium enrichment level from 3.67% allowed under the terms of the 2015 deal to 4.5%. In the next phase, the uranium’s enrichment continued using the centrifuges at the Fordow fuel enrichment plant, although under the terms of the agreement, the facility was supposed to function only as a research centre.

Interestingly, in January 2020, Iran announced that it would not limit the number of centrifuges. On the other hand, the promises of the Iranian government to enrich uranium to 20% maximum remained on paper, as no active steps were taken in this direction. Thus, the new IR-1 centrifuges installed at another plant in Natanz have not yet been launched. Iran also did not refuse to fulfil the terms of the Annex to the nuclear deal, which allows the IAEA to conduct broader inspections at the country's nuclear facilities.

Remarkably, Tehran's latest statements came on the eve of the inauguration of the newly elected US President Joseph Biden, who is interested in cooperation with Iran. According to Iranian state television, the move was initiated personally by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. It looks like Tehran is preparing to launch a new but, in fact, old format of cooperation with the Biden administration.

Tehran announced its intention to enrich uranium from 3.5% to 20% back in 2010. Then the government of the country reported to the IAEA about the objective of works being medical research. Iran had to purchase the uranium enriched to 20% to produce radioisotopes at a research reactor in Tehran for about 200 hospitals nationwide.

Iran's attempts to get the enriched uranium caused an extremely negative reaction in the world. Israel even announced the possibility of air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. This was followed by a virus attack on computers at the Iranian nuclear facilities in Bushehr and Natanz.

It turned out later that the notorious cyberattack was caused by a computer virus called Stuxnet allegedly developed in the US and Israel. The attack had a huge impact on Iran's nuclear program leading to the suspension of the enrichment centrifuges and freezing the country's nuclear program for several years. Considered the world's first cyber weapon, Stuxnet infiltrated the computers of Russian specialists working at the Bushehr nuclear plant spreading to 30,000 other machines. That’s how Stuxnet caused a long-term paralysis of Iran's nuclear program.

It was a representative of the reformist wing of the Iranian government, Hassan Rouhani, who initiated the negotiation process with the US on the nuclear issue immediately after his election as the president of the country in 2013. He promised his voters that he would sign a nuclear deal with the West to lift economic sanctions on Iran. The deal concluded in 2015 between Iran and the Big Six allowed the country, under the supervision of international experts, to enrich uranium only up to 3.67% and only for peaceful purposes. In return for additional volumes of enriched uranium and heavy water, it was planned to lift the US and UN sanctions as well.

However, the US President Donald Trump, who took office in 2017, abandoned the nuclear deal and imposed new sanctions on Iran. Trump justified his decision saying that the administration of his predecessor Barack Obama made concessions to Iran, and the existing agreement could not stop Iran's nuclear activities. Thus, a new deal was proposed for discussion in Tehran. Washington was clearly trying to suspend production of ballistic missiles in Iran and restrict Iran’s activities in the Middle East. Tehran declined the proposal announcing a gradual withdrawal from its obligations under the nuclear deal.

But now, with the new administration of Joe Biden, who promises to change many of his predecessor's political decisions, including the policy towards Iran, the statement of official Tehran is particularly interesting. It looks like Tehran wants to start a new round of talks with Biden on the enrichment issue. It is clear that the Biden administration will begin negotiations in a new format and with new requirements.

Recall that the relations between Tehran and Washington deteriorated after the assassination of the high-ranking Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. It is likely that, in addition to the nuclear program, the US demands Tehran to suspend the production of more dangerous ballistic missiles and support for armed groups in the Middle East. But Tehran will not want to take part in negotiations empty-handed. Obviously, in the current situation, Tehran does not intend to curtail its ballistic missile development program and its activities in the Middle East. On the contrary, it needs to show the West that it can and will do better in the nuclear field.

Ironically, it seems that Iran is being pushed to take such bold steps by its main rival in the Middle East – Israel. Tel Aviv has repeatedly stated that it will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. In December 2020, the deployment of American warships in the Persian and Oman Gulfs fuelled passions over possible attacks on Iran. But it did not lead to a dangerous confrontation.


Why Iran is not in rush?

Despite the bold statements of revenge for General Soleimani, Tehran has not made any risky moves yet. In general, Iran avoided any steps that could lead to a military confrontation with Washington, with the exception of missile attacks on the US military bases in Iraq. The Iranian government had to show enough patience not to provoke Donald Trump to hit Iran. The outcome of the November 3 presidential elections in the US gave Tehran a serious reason to be more patient. Even after the public assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian nuclear physicist, one of the main persons in the country's nuclear and ballistic programs, on November 27 in the vicinity of Tehran. Iran continues to patiently prepare to resume discussions on a post-Trump nuclear deal with Washington.

To obtain nuclear weapons, Iran needs to enrich uranium to 90%. For this reason, neutral experts consider the current progress of Iran's nuclear program to be insignificant and non-dangerous. Although some sources claim that 20% uranium can also be used in some types of weapons and military equipment.

Moreover, the US officials believe Iran may secretly continue nuclear activities in underground facilities. But does Tehran have such opportunities?


Iran’s nuclear facilities

We currently know about eight officially confirmed nuclear power plants and research facilities in Iran. The the construction of the largest of these facilities operating in Natanz began back in 2000. The first centrifuges at the research plant were launched in 2002. In 2003, the facility was closed for two years. In 2010, it was possible to enrich uranium in Natanz up to 20%.

In addition, Iran's main nuclear facilities are the Arak heavy water reactor, as well as the Fordow and Bushehr power plants.

The construction of the Bushehr power plant in the south of Iran was started by Germany in 1976. In 1995, Iran signed an agreement with Russia to continue the construction of the nuclear power plant. Due to the US sanctions, the construction of the plant was completed only in 2013.

The construction of the heavy water reactor IR-40 in Arak was planned back in the 1980s, but it became partially operational in 2006 only. The construction of the facility is still ongoing. After reaching full capacity, the reactor can produce 9-10 kg of plutonium annually.

The Arak nuclear facility is considered probably the most scandalous object of modern Iran because of its possible use for the production of nuclear weapons. Although the Iranian government claims that the reactors in Arak were built only for the production of "peaceful" isotopes used in agriculture, medicine and industry. But in the West, they believe that the 40 MW plant is too large for this kind of research. Moreover, it is argued that the required volume of isotopes can be obtained using light water.

It is known that the enriched uranium or plutonium is mainly used for the production of nuclear weapons. The process of obtaining the necessary uranium-235 is a very long and expensive one. That is why North Korea, India and Israel have acquired nuclear weapons using simpler and more convenient methods. For this, natural uranium is used as fuel in a heavy water reactor. As a result, there is no need to enrich uranium. Most importantly, in this case IAEA cannot control the production process. That is why many foreign experts warn about the use of the Arak plant for the production of nuclear weapons.

Another major nuclear facility in Iran, which the country's government has kept secret for a long time, is the nuclear research centre in Fordow. International inspectors were admitted to the centre only in 2009. Located near the city of Qom, the Fordow plant is also a military facility. By the way, Iran initially enriched the uranium up to 20% at the Fordow facility.

Iran also has nuclear research facilities operating in Tehran and Karaj. The Nuclear Research Centre of the University of Tehran was founded in 1956. There is also a 5MW nuclear power plant on the site. The Center for Nuclear Medicine and Agricultural Research is located in Karaj.

By the way, Iran is mining and producing its own uranium. The country's main uranium mine is located in the province of Yazd at a depth of 350 m. From here, uranium is transported to a primary processing facility in the village of Ardakan (Yazd) and further to a nuclear facility in Isfahan, where it is processed into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) – the raw material for uranium enrichment...

Tehran claims that its uranium enrichment program is intended solely for peaceful purposes, with no intention of producing weapons of mass destruction like nuclear weapons, which are prohibited by Islam. In this sense, it is obvious that the main problem between Iran and the West today is the issue of mutual trust and confidence. This means that the long and tedious negotiations on nuclear issues between Iran and the West will continue in the coming years.