As the Six Power group and Iran prepared for their third round of nuclear talks in Vienna next week (Tuesday-Wednesday, April 8-9) Tehran frankly admitted to exploiting the holes in the six-month interim deal they forged in Geneva last November. And Moscow looks like making good on its threat to back the Iranian case, in retaliation for Western penalties for its annexation of Crimea.
In a closed meeting in Tehran Wednesday, April 3, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Nuclear Energy Commission said: “We have 19,000 centrifuges of which 9,000 are in operation [for enriching uranium]. Our advice is not to discuss the number of centrifuges, rather to discuss the unit’s isolation power." He explained there are different types of centrifuge.
This was a candid admission that Iran had found a way to get around its commitment under the interim deal – which US Secretary of State John Kerry held up as his greatest diplomatic achievement – not to build or activate its most advanced centrifuges for speeding up enrichment.
Salehi had no qualms about pointing to the holes in that deal, as the six foreign ministers prepared to face Iran in Vienna for the next round of negotiations on a comprehensive agreement for Iran’s nuclear program.
That forum will provide Moscow with its first opportunity to confront the West over Iran (and likely Syria too) for the sanctions and bans NATO meted out over Russia's Ukraine policy.
The architect of Russian policy on both issues, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, gave due warning last week, when he said: “Russia wouldn’t like to use their [nuclear] talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes between Moscow and the West,” he said. “But if Russia feels forced, it would take retaliatory measures here as well.”
On the day the Iranian nuclear czar talked about Iran’s centrifuge capacity, sources in Moscow and Tehran reported that the two governments, both targets of Western sanctions, were close to a mammoth barter transaction: For 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil per day, Russia will supply goods of equivalent value including foodstuffs.
This transaction when it goes into effect will more or less scuttle the sanctions regime against Iran, including the oil embargo.
Salehi was accordingly not afraid to boast: “Enrichment activities have not ceased.”
The interim accord did not ban low-grade uranium enrichment, and that was another hole in the deal, because it allowed Iran to press forward and stockpile large quantities of the low grade material despite the fact that it can be refined to weapons grade in short order.
As for the heavy water-plutonium reactor under construction in Arak, Salehi commented: “Under normal circumstances, we would have needed at least two to three years to advance this project.” He went on to reveal: “Under the Geneva accord we undertook not to install certain major equipment for six months. So instead we worked on equipment quality.”
Referring to US President Barack Obama’s public statement last November that Iran had agreed to halt the Arak reactor project, Saleh pointed out: “The Arak reactor was never in operation for it to cease.”
However, Iran did not let the grass grow. Now that the six months of the interim accord is up, the improved equipment can be installed without further delay.
He also noted that a cessation of heavy water reactor operations was not covered in the Geneva Accord. “[The West] manipulated public opinion to persuade people that those operations must be stopped.”
This confirmed Israel’s complaint to Washington that the interim deal of last November and subsequent discussions between the big powers and Iran omitted to address the Arak project and its capacity for producing plutonium, as an alternative weapons fuel to enriched uranium.
The Iranian official made no secret of his government’s intentions. “Currently, we are not after establishing reprocessing facilities [for high grade enriched uranium and/or plutonium]. Of course, this does not mean that we renounce this right for ever.”