Exploring Iran’s nuclear ambitions

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi met with HE Dr. Seyed Abbas Araghchi, Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs of Iran, Vienna, Austria. 8 April 2021. Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA

According to Iranian authorities, Iran has made 55 kg of highly (up to 20%) enriched uranium, indicating quicker production than the 10 kg a month rate required by an Iranian law established in December 2020.

News sources have also verified that Iran has begun enriching uranium with a fourth cascade of advanced IR-2m machines at its underground Natanz plant, a significant breach of its 2015 nuclear deal.

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These announcements follow discussions in Vienna on 6 April 2021 between officials from Iran and the United States aimed at reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Whether or not the discussions were successful remains to be seen however, a standoff has ensued making the global nuclear community uncomfortable indeed.

Iran has stated that its nuclear developments are benign in nature, aimed at increasing its clean energy options rather than to be used in a military context. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has one operating nuclear power reactor, Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), Unit 1, where a total of 42 199 million kW.h electricity has been generated from March 2011 to March 2020. BNPP-1 provided 1.84% of national electricity production in 2019 and prevented the consumption of 11.244 billion m3 of natural gas, equivalent to 66.7 million barrels of crude oil, and the release of 37.7 million tonnes of pollutants or greenhouse gases into the environment.

Clearly, nuclear power can contribute to the world’s push to net zero and Iran wants its share of the clean energy action. However, recent tensions over breaches of the existing nuclear agreement have left many suspicious of Iran’s intentions.


The JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, was an agreement reached in 2015 concerning Iran’s nuclear programme, between that country and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, namely; China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United Statesࢀ”plus Germany. The agreement saw a decrease in operating centrifuges, capped uranium enrichment levels, and strict adherence to monitoring and verification measures.

On 8 May 2018, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA and re-imposed all U.S. sanctions despite Iran’s verified compliance to the agreement. The U.S. continued it’s campaign to increase pressure in May 2019, when it terminated designated sanction waivers for cooperative nuclear projects detailed in the JCPOA. It was during this time that Tehran began to incrementally violate the agreement, citing a lack of sanction relief and the withdrawal of the US from the agreement.

Iran’s Guardian Council passed new legislation in December 2020 mandating Iran to significantly increase its nuclear activities and in February 2021 the Biden administration formally rescinded Trump’s request that all sanctions lifted in accordance with the JCPOA be reimposed.

What’s next

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said Tehran will never forego its nuclear rights under pressure or threats by the West. Said Kamalvandi: “We have always said that Iran does not accept pressure and threat, especially since we have had the most cooperation with the Agency.” Senior Iranian officials have made it clear that Tehran will stop its 20% uranium enrichment only if the US lifts ALL its sanctions on Iran first.

According to the IAEA, on 15 February, Iran announced that it would stop implementing the JCPOA’s “voluntary transparency measures,” along with other arrangements in Iran’s Safeguards Agreement.

IAEA chief, General Rafael Grossi, has stated that a “temporary bilateral technical understanding” had been agreed upon during his most recent visit to Iran that would enable the UN agency to “resume its full verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA if and when Iran resumes its implementation of those commitments”.

Washington’s softer approach will hopefully encourage a return to compliance by all parties. Negotiations between the US and Iran are ongoing and mainly relayed by European intermediaries.

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