Iran is “on the verge” of producing fuel made up of highly enriched uranium, Iran’s top nuclear power official said. While it hasn’t reached weapons-grade level, the new fuel might still cross a line set by the 2015 nuclear deal.
“Initial steps have been taken to create modern 20 percent [enriched uranium] fuel and we are on the verge [of producing it],” the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI), Ali Akbar Salehi, told local media on Sunday. He added that the Islamic Republic can now create new types of nuclear fuel on its own and no longer needs to rely on reverse-engineering of foreign technologies.
The new product would be “different” from the 20 percent enriched uranium fuel, which had previously been produced in Iran and could be used to “supply fuel to any reactor similar to the Tehran Research Reactor,” Salehi said. He also pointed to significant advances in reactor development, saying that “designing a reactor has now become a very possible task for the Iranian experts.”
Twenty-percent enrichment is at the lower scale of the boundary set for what is known as highly enriched uranium. While this level is still far lower than the one used in nuclear weapons – where it exceeds 80 percent – such fuel is still considered dangerous as it can be potentially be used as a nuclear explosive material.
The announcement made by the Iranian officials might prove to be quite controversial, in light of the requirements set out by the 2015 agreement reached by Iran and the six world powers on the Iranian nuclear program, which is also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA). The accord repeatedly and explicitly states that Iran must “keep its level of uranium enrichment at up to 3.67 percent for 15 years.”
It also bans Iran from “producing, seeking or acquiring … highly enriched uranium … for 15 years.” While it still allows Iran to use uranium fuel enriched to almost 20 percent in its research reactor in Tehran, it maintains that this fuel should be supplied from abroad.
The international community has not yet reacted to the statements. They might yet add fuel to the fire in the bitter feud between Tehran and Washington and further escalate tensions around the nuclear deal.
In May 2018, US President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear accord, in a move that was condemned by all other parties to the agreement, which include the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the EU, together with Iran. Following its withdrawal, Washington reinstated all anti-Iranian penalties that had been in force before the agreement, and vowed also to reduce imports of Iranian oil “to zero.”
Meanwhile, other parties to the deal actively sought to keep it in place. The EU is working on a so-called special purpose vehicle (SPV) to facilitate financial transactions between the bloc and Iran while bypassing the US sanctions. In December, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, announced that this system will be ready in the near future.
Iran has so far stood defiant in the face of the US pressure. The Islamic Republic’s leadership blasted the US sanctions as unprovoked and illegal under international law, and promised to retaliate. At the same time, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that the restrictions failed to harm the nation’s economy but only enabled it to “flourish,” while calling the US establishment “first-class idiots.”
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