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Waived Iran sanctions allow redesign of Fordo plant, cooperation with Russia, China

Israel yet to officially respond to move by US, but sources tell Haaretz that relief on Tehran’s civil atomic program is technical step, not a sign of progress in nuclear talks

A satellite image from September 15, 2017, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)
A satellite image from September 15, 2017, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)

The US decision to ease sanctions on Iran on Friday includes six clauses that now allow foreign countries and companies from Russia, China, and Europe to cooperate with non-military parts of Iran’s nuclear program, according to several reports.

According to a State Department notice cited by Reuters and the Haaretz daily, the clauses included permitting the modification of Iran’s Fordo facility to become a research center for the production of stable radioactive isotopes — used for medical purposes — with Russia.

Reports said Britain and China can now help Iran redesign its Arak heavy-water reactor to a light-water reactor. A light water reactor, like the one Iran has at Bushehr, is used to generate electricity.

As originally designed, the reactor at Arak could have produced substantial amounts of plutonium, material that can be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon.

The waiver also allows the Russian supply of nuclear fuel to the Tehran research reactor and Bushehr nuclear power plant, as well as the export of excess heavy water if Iran exceeds the 130 metric tons limit under the 2015 agreement.

Heavy water contains high concentrations of the hydrogen isotope deuterium and is used to produce plutonium, an alternative to uranium for manufacturing atomic weapons.

Technicians work at the Iranian Arak heavy water reactor, 150 miles southwest of the capital Tehran, on December 23, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Lastly, the reports said the sanctions relief allows Iran to receive yellowcake from Russia, a precursor to enriched uranium. Yellowcake is produced by mining uranium ore from rocks and separating the uranium from the rocks by bathing them in acid. The yellowcake can then be converted, enriched to raise its purity, and then used for weapons or energy production.

The Trump administration had ended the so-called “civ-nuke” waivers in May 2020 as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran that began when Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018, complaining that it was the worst diplomatic agreement ever negotiated and gave Iran a pathway to developing the bomb.

As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden made a US return to the nuclear deal a priority, and his administration has pursued that goal but there has been little obvious progress toward that end since he took office a year ago. Administration officials said the waivers were being restored to help push the Vienna negotiations forward.

“The waiver with respect to these activities is designed to facilitate discussions that would help to close a deal on a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA and lay the groundwork for Iran’s return to performance of its JCPOA commitments,” the State Department said in a notice to Congress that announced the move, referring to the 2015 agreement, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Israel did not immediately respond officially to the announcement, but sources involved in the matter told Haaretz that the sanctions relief was only a technical step and did not signal progress in the nuclear talks in Vienna.

Iran’s foreign minister on Saturday welcomed the US sanctions relief, but said the move was “insufficient.”

Critics of the nuclear deal who lobbied former US president Donald Trump to withdraw from it protested, arguing that even if the Biden administration wants to return to the 2015 deal it should at least demand some concessions from Iran before granting it sanctions relief.

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