Iran’s nuclear chief: We bought spares for nuke equipment we agreed to destroy
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'They said: Pour cement into the tubes. Fine. We had others'

Iran’s nuclear chief: We bought spares for nuke equipment we agreed to destroy

Ali Akbar Salehi says supreme leader was convinced West would renege on 2015 pact, so replacement tubes for nuclear reactor were secretly purchased

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation Ali Akbar Salehi adjusts his earphones during a news conference at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels,  November 26, 2018. (Francisco Seco/AP)
Head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation Ali Akbar Salehi adjusts his earphones during a news conference at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, November 26, 2018. (Francisco Seco/AP)

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, has detailed how Iran quietly purchased replacement parts for its Arak nuclear reactor while it was conducting negotiations for an international agreement under which it knew it would be required to destroy the original components.

In an interview broadcast on Iran’s Channel 4 TV on January 22, Salehi recalled that during talks for the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 deal that lifted sanctions on Iran in return for it dismantling the weapons-capable parts of its nuclear program, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned his country’s negotiators that he expected Western parties to renege on the agreement.

An English translation of some parts of the interview were provided Thursday by the Washington-based non-profit Middle East Media Research Institute.

“When our team was in the midst of the negotiations, we knew that [the Westerners] would ultimately renege on their promises,” Salehi said. “The leader [Khamenei] warned us that they were violators of agreements. We had to act wisely. Not only did we avoid destroying the bridges that we had built, but we also built new bridges that would enable us to go back faster if needed.”

The industrial complex at Arak in central-west Iran was a key topic in negotiations due to its nuclear reactor and heavy-water production facility. Western powers initially demanded that the core reactor mechanism — know as a calandria — be removed and that the pit in which it sits be filled with cement. While Iran agreed to remove — but not dismantle — the calandria, it also negotiated that only the pipes and openings leading to the pit be filled with cement, which was eventually done.

However, Salehi detailed in Tuesday’s interview, Iran’s nuclear team as a precaution purchased replacement parts for some of the piping used in the reactor which it had promised to fill with cement. They kept that fact hidden during the JCPOA negotiations, he made clear, and also hid it from other Iranian officials.

Illustrative: Iran’s heavy water nuclear facilities near the central city of Arak. (CC-BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia/Nanking2012)

Inside the reactor core, said Salehi, “there are tubes where the fuel goes. We had bought similar tubes, but I could not declare this at the time. Only one person in Iran knew this. We told no one but the top man of the regime [Khamenei].”

“We had bought the same quantity of similar tubes,” he explained. “When they told us to pour cement into the tubes… we said: ‘Fine. We will pour.’ But we did not tell them that we had other tubes. Otherwise, they would have told us to pour cement into those tubes as well. Now we have the same tubes.”

However, Salehi insisted that such subterfuge did not indicate that Iran was or is seeking nuclear weapons, as the Trump Administration and Israel insist. Iran’s plan was to modernize the Arak reactor, which was based on an old Russian design, and use the new facility to produce reduced quantities of plutonium that would be used for nuclear fuel, but not weapons, he said.

“First, we do not intend to build a nuclear weapon,” he said and noted the refurbishment was agreed on during the nuclear talks. “Second, this [reactor’s] plutonium is not suitable for nuclear weapons.”

Screen capture from video showing the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi pointing to the empty reactor pit inside the Arak nuclear facility in Iran, January 22, 2019. (Memri)

Salehi also clarified that a photo apparently showing the Arak reactor pit filled with cement was fake, a photoshopped image produced by Iranian hardliners who opposed the nuclear deal and wanted to assert that Iran had been humiliated by the West into destroying its own plants.

US President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal in May last year but the other signatories, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran have all agreed to try to keep the pact alive on their own. Trump insists the original agreement did not go far enough in curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and wants to renegotiate the JCPOA with stricter terms. In the meantime Washington has imposed heavy sanctions on Iran that could weaken the ability of the remaining parties to maintain the deal.

Last week Salehi said Iran has begun “preliminary activities for designing” a modern process for 20-percent uranium enrichment. Restarting enrichment at that level would mean Iran had withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal.

Tehran has in the past warned that if the remaining parties are not able to keep up the trade and financial benefits the deal provided, it will also pull out and restart controversial parts of its nuclear program.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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