Iran’s Fresh, Subtle Posture against JCPOA Compliance


Iran’s latest claim about possessing the ability to redesign a heavy-water nuclear reactor without reverse-engineering is more boisterous than the fifth-generation fighter jet – Qaher 313 – it unveiled in 2014. The most recent boast is Tehran’s invention of a cost-effective state-of-the-art process to enrich uranium to 20 percent.


Ali Akbar Salehi, Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), in a meeting with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on January 13, claimed that the country has proven itself in the sphere of nuclear technology, by being able to design and manufacture a heavy-water reactor along with its signature centrifuges.

Also, Salehi claimed that instead of relying on reverse engineering, “we can now design a new reactor fuel from scratch.” This claim by Salehi is in line with Tehran’s policy of boasting rather than having real capability For example, the Qaher 313 fighter jet was showcased during the Ahmedinejad presidency as an invincible fifth-generation indigenous fighter jet but it is unlikely that it will make its maiden test flight by its sixth anniversary  on February 2. Another case in point is Iran boasting about its drones, particularly their range and stealth features.
The Iranian nuclear establishment’s focal person was clearly not addressing its domestic audience when he claimed success in producing the raw material – Oxygen 18 – for the tracer FDG (fluorodeoxyglucose), which is used in the positron emission tomography (PET) scan. In simple English this is an imaging test, allowing a doctor to check the internal organs of a human for diseases. The stable oxygen isotope has become increasingly useful in clinical medicine. Tehran currently imports oxygen isotopes and other elements used for medical purposes from Russia mainly.
Salehi’s team aims to modernize the Arak nuclear reactor by 2022. Tehran believes that the reactor can be a security hazard due to its constant use since the 1950s when it was acquired from the US and is located some 250 kilometers from Tehran. Also, Salehi told Khamenei about the need to find new resources to provide uranium while Iran possesses sufficient uranium ore to meet its goal of 20 percent enrichment.
As per the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran is limited to enriching uranium to 3.67%  Tehran is obviously taking  preliminary steps to design a superior reactor for 20% uranium enrichment. “Our production capability in this field has increased to the extent that we can export a part of our products to other countries,” Salehi added.
As per the nuclear agreement, Iran agreed to reduce the number of its gas centrifuges by two-thirds, from 19,000 to 6,104, all of which are from the first-generation. In nutshell, Iran has confirmed its ability to complete a nuclear fuel cycle.
Designing a state-of-the-art nuclear reactor is a tall claim. The chances are bleak that Tehran could deliver on its most recent claim. The matter is more significant geopolitically than technologically.
The nuclear deal aims to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and for it to fulfil its obligations as a member of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The latest Iranian position suggests that Tehran has lost hope or is not interested in the US returning to the nuclear deal either under a different administration or due to a change in policy. It deems the possibility of renegotiating the sanctions with Washington unrealistic and unlikely.
To the world, Iran is starting an enrichment process for weapons-grade uranium at a rate that is well beyond its permissible limit. In reality, no violation of the agreement occurs until a party takes adverse action.
The reason behind Salehi informing the media about some of the discussion points in his meeting with Khameini was to test the reaction of the agreement’s European partners as well as China and Russia.
Under the Trump sanctions, the AEOI is on Washington’s list of sanctioned entities and its foreign partners are liable to extra-territorial restraints. Only Russian and Chinese companies are partnering with Iran to upgrade its Arak nuclear reactor in Tehran or re-purposing the Fordow uranium enrichment site.
On January 26 last year, the AEOI informed the IAEA of its intent to work on nuclear means for naval propulsion, by miniaturizing reactors for use in submarines and larger ships such as aircraft carriers. Such a goal cannot be achieved without the enrichment of uranium-235 to more than 90% besides other technological triumphs.
Obviously, Iran is merely saber-rattling and such posturing does not pre-requisite an over-reaction from JCPOA signatories except for them to reiterate the demand for Tehran to comply with the commitments that it has signed. Tehran has gradually been increasing the pressure on the IAEA and the JCPOA signatories by testing the boundaries with a calibrated mix of technological and political pointers. It neither has the financial muscle to invest so heavily in the nuclear program to deliver on its tall claims nor the technological know-how. Nonetheless, in case it exits the JCPOA, Iran will face excruciating sanctions from all its signatories, and the United Nations Security Councils restraints will return to deal it a blow as well. The financial crunch will become more acute and global diplomatic isolation a stark reality.

Editorial Team