Why Iran’s decision to resume enriching uranium at Fordow is a big deal

Iran's IR_6 advanced centrifuges
Iran's decision to use cascades of advanced IR-6 centrifuges to enrich uranium is one of two new violations of the JCPOA nuclear deal by Iran (Img: Reuters)

Summary

  • Iran has announced a new round of nuclear measures which breach the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement reached in 2015 more dramatically than ever before. Furthermore, the announced plans to resume uranium enrichment at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment plant and to operate cascades of advanced centrifuges, both specifically forbidden by the JCPOA, will likely significantly shorten Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon.
  • In addition, there are reports Iran recently detained an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector trying to inspect its Natanz enrichment plant, another JCPOA violation.

What did Iran announce and do?

  • Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, declared on November 5 that his country will resume uranium enrichment at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) facility by operating the 1,044 IR-1 type centrifuges there and injecting them with Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) gas.
  • In addition, the day before that, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation (IAEO), announced that Iran has begun operating a cascade of 30 advanced IR-6 type centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site, He also said Iran was now producing more than 5kg of uranium enriched to at least 4.2% on a daily basis, as opposed to 450 grams a day just a couple of months ago, a more than tenfold increase.
  • In addition, reports say that last week an IAEA inspector was briefly detained by the Iranians at the Natanz site and had her travel documents confiscated. She then left the country without completing her inspections, Iran claimed this was done because the inspector was thought to be carrying “suspicious material.” This incident follows threats from Iranian officials on October 16 to restrict the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors monitoring nuclear activities in Iran. Such restrictions would be a major violation of the JCPOA. The incident is due to be discussed at a meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors on Thursday, Nov. 7.

What does the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) say about these actions?

  • The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement reached in 2015 specifically forbids Iran from enriching any uranium at the Fordow plant for 15 years, until 2031.
  • The agreement also say the Fordow installation was to be converted into a “nuclear, physics and technology centre” redesigned to hold only 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges, which would be stored and closely monitored. Two of the six cascades of the 1044 centrifuges to remain at Fordow were to be “transitioned, including through appropriate infrastructure modification, for stable isotope production” – that is producing non-nuclear isotopes. All other centrifuges there are to “remain idle” and are not to be used.
  • The JCPOA allows Iran to enrich uranium only using cascades of its simple IR-1 centrifuges at its Natanz plant for ten years, until 2026. It is allowed to continue R&D on other much more advanced centrifuges, the IR-4, IR-5, IR-6 and IR-8, which enrich uranium much more quickly. However, Iran can only conduct “mechanical testing on up to two single centrifuges for each type” until at least 2023, when testing of IR-6 and IR-8 cascades will be allowed. At no stage during the ten years is Iran allowed to extract “enriched and depleted uranium materials” made while testing these advanced centrifuges – they can only test enrichment and then recombine the uranium to its natural isotope ratios.
  • The JCPOA says also Iran can accumulate no more than 300kg of enriched uranium and can enrich uranium to a maximum of 3.67% uranium-235.

What is the background and context?

  • This is the 4th phase in Iran’s escalated series of measures breaching the JCPOA this year. Each step is applied every 60 days – unless European countries meet Teheran’s demands to lift or bypass US economic sanctions on Iran and compensate Iran for them. The 3rd breach, in mid-October, was operation and research on the advanced IR-2, IR-4, IR-6, IR-7 and IR-9 centrifuges,
  • Iran has now accumulated more than 1,700 kg of enriched uranium, close to the pre-JCPOA level of 2,300 kg, and is enriching to 4.2%, which exceeds the JCPOA limit of 3.67%.
  • Fordow is an underground, heavily protected facility, built in secret until it was exposed in 2009, and was constructed to withstand possible air attacks. Despite the stipulations of the JCPOA, Iran has reportedly taken no measures to repurpose it into a “nuclear, physics and technology centre” or to alter two of its cascades of centrifuges to enrich stable isotopes.
  • Furthermore, documents taken by Israel from Iran’s secret nuclear archive in 2018 reveal that the Fordow plant was built with the sole purpose of converting enough Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) into weapon-grade High Enriched Uranium (HEU) to enable the production of 1-2 atomic bombs per year. In other words, it was designed to be Iran’s nuclear bomb core factory.
  • Experts argue that Iran’s previous decision to keep more enriched uranium than the JCPOA allows, and to enrich to higher levels than it allows, has already shortened the “breakout time” it would take Iran to assemble enough HEU material to build a nuclear bomb to well below the one year period that was the declared goal of the JCPOA. Deploying the additional centrifuges at Fordow and the advanced IR-6 centrifuges – each approximately 10 times more efficient than the IR-1 – will significantly shorten that “breakout” time further.
  • Iran is also threatening to begin enriching uranium to 20%, which, technically speaking, requires only fairly minimal further enrichment to reach the 90% enrichment required for bomb-making.

International reactions

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel “will never let Iran develop nuclear weapons. This is not only for our security and our future; it’s for the future of the Middle East and the world”.
  • US officials defined Iran’s actions as “nuclear extortion that will only deepen its political and economic isolation” and concluded that Washington would continue to impose maximum pressure on Teheran until it changes its policies. Prior to the latest Iranian declarations, the US imposed new sanctions on personnel close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
  • A French Foreign Ministry official reiterated Paris’ ongoing commitment to the JCPOA, while urging Tehran to reverse its decision and “fully adhere” to its JCPOA obligations. However, French President Emmanuel Macron recently added, “I think that for the first time, Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the JCPOA (nuclear) agreement, which marks a profound shift” and promised discussions in coming days to “draw the consequences” of this.
  • UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab cautioned that Iran’s action poses “a risk to our national security.” He called for a resumption of dialogue with Teheran, and demanded it should “urgently return to full compliance.,”
  • The official Russian response was similar, while also expressing understanding for Teheran’s concerns over the “unprecedented and illegal sanctions” imposed on Iran by the US.