Iran has started enriching uranium at its underground Natanz nuclear facility using the advanced IR-4 centrifuge, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear watchdog said in a report reviewed by Reuters late Tuesday.
The development is not only a further breach of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with the P5+1 major world powers, but also reflects its recovery from a blow suffered on July 2, 2020.
Last summer, the Islamic Republic’s above-ground main advanced centrifuge assembly facility at Natanz was destroyed, with foreign sources validated by The Jerusalem Post reporting that it was caused by physical sabotage by the Mossad.
At the time, eight months ago, Israeli intelligence officials and nuclear experts told the Post that Iran would need one to two years to recover its advanced centrifuge enrichment capabilities.
The latest IAEA report on a new underground facility, which the ayatollahs ordered built at Natanz to replace the destroyed above-ground facility, reveals exactly how much they have rehabilitated since July 2.
“On 15 March 2021, the agency verified that Iran began feeding the cascade of 174 IR-4 centrifuges already installed at FEP (Fuel Enrichment Plant) with natural UF6,” the agency said in the report to member states dated Monday, referring to uranium hexafluoride, the form of uranium that is fed into centrifuges for enrichment.
Iran has indicated that it now plans to install a second cascade of IR-4 centrifuges at the FEP, but installation of that cascade has yet to begin, the report said.
Iran has already increased the number of IR-2m machines, which are far more efficient than the IR-1, installed at the underground plant.
“In summary, as of 15 March 2021, Iran was using 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges installed in 30 cascades, 522 IR-2m centrifuges installed in three cascades and 174 IR-4 centrifuges installed in one cascade, to enrich natural UF6 up to 5% U-235 at FEP,” the IAEA report said, referring to the fissile purity of uranium.
The Islamic Republic has recently accelerated its breaches of the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear activities, in an apparent bid to pressure US President Joe Biden as both sides are locked in a standoff over who should move first to save the deal.
Tehran’s breaches began in May 2019 after Washington’s May 2018 withdrawal from the deal and reimposition of US economic sanctions against Iran under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.
Trump took these actions after months of attempted but failed negotiations with Iran and the E-3 (England, Germany and France) at placing limits on Iran’s ballistic missile program, restraining its destabilization of the Middle East and extending the 2015 deal’s nuclear limits.
After the July explosion, Iran last year started moving three cascades, or clusters, of different advanced centrifuge models to its below-ground FEP.
It is already enriching underground with IR-2m centrifuges. This violates the 2015 deal, which permits enriching there only with first-generation IR-1 machines.
Uranium enrichment underground, especially with advanced centrifuges, is highly sensitive because below-ground facilities are much harder to attack.
As such, there is a much greater fear that Iran could use underground facilities to break out to a nuclear bomb even in the face of the threat of a physical attack by Israel.