WASHINGTON – Iran has diluted half of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium in observance with an agreement forged last fall with the international community, a UN report is set to confirm this week.
That level of dilution amounts to a significant step in Western efforts to peacefully curb Iran’s nuclear program, as enriching uranium to 20% constitutes the hardest part of the process toward the production of nuclear bombs.
In exchange, world powers are abiding by their side of the deal, releasing the fifth of eight tranches of funds this week, providing modest sanctions relief to the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s expansive enrichment program has been a chief concern of Western and Arab governments ever since Iran began running thousands of uranium- spinning centrifuges several years ago.
Before the short-term deal was reached last November in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 – the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China – the Islamic Republic had produced 181 kg. of uranium enriched to 20%.
That was nearly enough to produce one nuclear warhead should Iran have chosen to “break out” from 20% to 90%, weapons-grade material – a relatively short process that would take roughly two months, according to US intelligence estimates.
The interim Geneva deal will expire on July 20, unless the parties agree to a comprehensive solution to the longstanding nuclear impasse.
Without such an agreement, and without a continuation of negotiations, Iran would enter August with the ability to reproduce that high-grade stockpile in less than a year. Iran is also producing highly advantaged centrifuges that can leapfrog that key threshold completely, able to break out to weapons- grade material from levels below 10%.
Granting an interview to Reuters in Abu Dhabi on the negotiations, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he was optimistic that a deal would be reached in the three months remaining.
“There is the political will to get an answer,” Zarif said.
Hard-liners in Iran, unsettled by the shift to a more moderate foreign policy since President Hassan Rouhani took office in August, have repeatedly criticized the interim agreement, formally known as the Joint Plan of Action.
Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has generally supported the negotiations, though the supreme leader has expressed pessimism at the chances of success.
“The domestic audience will be satisfied if we have a good deal,” said Zarif when asked if he feared domestic push back.
“Of course some people will never be satisfied but that is fine because we have a pluralistic society.”
In their latest criticism of the interim agreement, some hard-liners have said Iran has had difficulty receiving billions of dollars of oil revenue unfrozen under the agreement.
Majid Takht-Ravanchi, an Iranian deputy foreign minister, rejected the assertion on Tuesday, saying Iran’s central bank has no problem accessing the funds, according to state news agency IRNA.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Gulf neighbors expressed alarm this week over growing signs of support from Iran for Assad’s military.
The latest new piece of Iranian equipment to appear on the Syrian battlefield, an unmanned Shahed 129 drone photographed over Damascus, is said by Tehran to carry weapons as well as conduct surveillance.
Reuters contributed to this report.