Iran to fuel cen­trifuges in new step away from nuclear deal

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Nasser Karimi and Jon Gam­brell

TEHRAN, IRAN >> Iran will start in­ject­ing ura­nium gas into over a thou­sand cen­trifuges at a for­ti­fied nuclear fa­cil­ity built in­side a moun­tain, the coun­try’s pres­i­dent an­nounced Tues­day in Tehran’s lat­est step away from its atomic ac­cord with world pow­ers since Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump with­drew from the deal over a year ago.

Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani’s an­nounce­ment means that Iran’s Fordo nuclear fa­cil­ity, pub­licly re­vealed only 10 years ago, again will be­come an ac­tive atomic site rather than a re­search fa­cil­ity as en­vi­sioned by the land­mark 2015 ac­cord. The State Depart­ment an­nounced days ago that it would re­new a waiver al­low­ing Rus­sia’s state-run Rosatom nuclear com­pany to con­tinue its con­ver­sion work at the site.

The an­nounce­ment rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment as Fordo’s 1,044 cen­trifuges pre­vi­ously spun empty for test­ing pur­poses un­der the deal. It also in­creases pres­sure on Eu­ro­pean na­tions that re­main in the ac­cord to of­fer Iran a way to sell its crude oil abroad. Rouhani threat­ened to fur­ther pull Iran out of the deal in early Jan­uary 2020, which could mean cur­tail­ing in­ter­na­tional sur­veil­lance of its pro­gram or push­ing en­rich­ment close to weapons-grade lev­els.

“We are aware of their sen­si­tive­ness to­ward the Fordo fa­cil­ity and those cen­trifuges,” Rouhani said in a live tele­vised ad­dress. “At the same time, we can­not tol­er­ate uni­lat­eral ful­fill­ment of our com­mit­ments and no com­mit­ment from their side”

The In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency — the United Na­tions’ nuclear watch­dog mon­i­tor­ing Iran’s com­pli­ance with the deal — de­clined to com­ment on Rouhani’s an­nounce­ment. Eu­ro­pean Union spokes­woman Maja Ko­ci­jan­cic de­scribed the bloc as “con­cerned” by Iran’s de­ci­sion. The White House on Mon­day sanc­tioned mem­bers of Su

preme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei’s in­ner cir­cle as part of its max­i­mum pres­sure cam­paign against Tehran.

Ex­perts de­scribed Iran’s an­nounce­ment as a ma­jor tear to the un­rav­el­ing deal.

“They’re get­ting closer and closer to mus­cle. They aren’t cut­ting fat right now,” said Richard Nephew, a scholar at Columbia Univer­sity who worked on the deal while at the State Depart­ment.

Fordo sits some 25 kilo­me­ters (15 miles) north­east of Qom, a Shi­ite holy city and the site of a for­mer am­mu­ni­tion dump. Shielded by the moun­tains, the fa­cil­ity also is ringed by anti-air­craft guns and other for­ti­fi­ca­tions. It is about the size of a foot­ball field, large enough to house 3,000 cen­trifuges, but small and hard­ened enough to lead U.S. of­fi­cials to sus­pect it had a mil­i­tary pur­pose.

Iran ac­knowl­edged Fordo’s ex­is­tence in 2009 amid a ma­jor pres­sure cam­paign by Western pow­ers over Tehran’s nuclear pro­gram. The West feared Iran could use its pro­gram to build a nuclear weapon; Iran in­sists the pro­gram is for peace­ful pur­poses.

The cen­trifuges at Fordo are first-gen­er­a­tion IR-1s. The nuclear deal al­lowed those at Fordo to spin with­out ura­nium gas, while al­low­ing up to 5,060 IR-1s at its Natanz fa­cil­ity to en­rich ura­nium.

Rouhani said Tues­day that the cen­trifuges at Fordo would be in­jected with gas on Wed­nes­day. He did not say whether the cen­trifuges would pro­duce en­riched ura­nium.

How­ever, Rouhani stressed the steps taken so far, in­clud­ing go­ing beyond the deal’s en­rich­ment and stock­pile lim­i­ta­tions, could be re­versed if Europe of­fers a way for it to avoid U.S. sanc­tions chok­ing off its crude oil sales abroad. How­ever, a trade mech­a­nism has yet to take hold and French-pro­posed $15 bil­lion line of credit has not emerged.

“We should be able to sell our oil,” Rouhani said. “We should be able to bring our money” into the coun­try.

The 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Iran limit its en­rich­ment in ex­change for the lift­ing of eco­nomic sanc­tions, called for Fordo to be­come “a nuclear, physics and tech­nol­ogy cen­ter.” Rosatom did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment about its work there. How­ever, Rus­sia’s Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter

Sergei Ryabkov said the joint Rus­sian-Ira­nian project at Fordo would not be af­fected by Tehran’s lat­est move.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, said Moscow wants the nuclear deal to sur­vive though it un­der­stood Iran’s anger over the “un­prece­dented and il­le­git­i­mate sanc­tions against” it.

Rouhani’s an­nounce­ment came af­ter Ali Akhbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic En­ergy Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Iran, said Mon­day that Tehran had dou­bled the num­ber of ad­vanced IR-6 cen­trifuges operating in the coun­try to 60.

A cen­trifuge en­riches ura­nium by rapidly spin­ning ura­nium hex­aflu­o­ride gas. An IR-6 cen­trifuge can pro­duce en­riched ura­nium 10 times faster than an IR1, Ira­nian of­fi­cials say.

Ira­nian sci­en­tists also are work­ing on a pro­to­type called the IR-9, which works 50-times faster than the IR-1, Salehi said.

As of now, Iran is en­rich­ing ura­nium up to 4.5%, in vi­o­la­tion of the ac­cord’s limit of 3.67%. En­riched ura­nium at the 3.67% level is enough for peace­ful pur­suits but is far be­low weapons-grade lev­els of 90%. At the 4.5% level, it is enough to help power Iran’s Bushehr re­ac­tor, the coun­try’s only nuclear power plant. Prior to the atomic deal, Iran only reached up to 20%.

Tehran has gone from pro­duc­ing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-en­riched ura­nium a day to 5 kilo­grams (11 pounds), Salehi said. Iran now holds over 500 kilo­grams (1,102 pounds) of low-en­riched ura­nium, Salehi said. The deal had lim­ited Iran to 300 kilo­grams (661 pounds).

The col­lapse of the nuclear deal co­in­cided with a tense sum­mer of mys­te­ri­ous at­tacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil fa­cil­i­ties that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran de­nied the al­le­ga­tion, though it did seize oil tankers and shoot down a U.S. mil­i­tary sur­veil­lance drone.

As pre­vi­ous steps brought Iran no closer to a new deal with Europe, Fordo could be a “make or break” de­ci­sion for Tehran, said Aniseh Bas­siri Tabrizi, a re­search fel­low at a British think tank called the Royal United Ser­vices In­sti­tute. Beyond this, Iran can only in­crease en­rich­ment, limit U.N. sur­veil­lance of its pro­gram or pres­sure the re­gion through a “re­tal­ia­tory ap­proach,” she said.

“It’s a very risky gam­ble. You know, you’re risk­ing ba­si­cally an open con­fronta­tion with the West,” Tabrizi said. “And that is some­thing that ap­par­ently the Ira­ni­ans are ready to go for.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Iran Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani an­nounced on Tues­day that Tehran will be­gin in­ject­ing ura­nium gas into 1,044 cen­trifuges, the lat­est step away from its nuclear deal with world pow­ers.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this photo re­leased Nov. 4 by the Atomic En­ergy Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Iran, Ali Ak­bar Salehi, head of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, speaks with me­dia while vis­it­ing Natanz en­rich­ment fa­cil­ity, in cen­tral Iran. Iran on Mon­day broke fur­ther away from its col­laps­ing 2015 nuclear deal with world pow­ers by dou­bling the num­ber of ad­vanced cen­trifuges it op­er­ates, link­ing the de­ci­sion to U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s with­drawal from the agree­ment over a year ago.

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