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Iran ‘to install more advanced centrifuges’ as nuclear deal tensions simmer

Iran has informed the UN nuclear watchdog that it plans to install more of its advanced IR-2m centrifuges at an underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, according to a February 17 report by the agency. Such a move would escalate the incremental breaching of the 2015 nuclear deal that the Islamic Republic has been pursuing in the past couple of years to raise pressure on the US to lift the heavy sanctions it applies to Tehran.

“Iran indicated it plans to install two additional cascades of 174 IR-2m centrifuges at FEP to enrich ... up to 5% U-235. This will bring the total number of cascades of IR-2m centrifuges either planned, being installed, or operating in FEP to six,” the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report to member states obtained by Reuters.

An IAEA report on February 1 said Iran had brought a second cascade, or cluster, of IR-2m centrifuges online at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) and was installing two more. Iran’s deal with major powers says it can only enrich uranium at the FEP with far less efficient, first-generation IR-1 centrifuges.

Iran insists it does not and has never had any intention of making a nuclear weapon and that its nuclear development programme including uranium enrichment is entirely civilian in nature, something foes such as Israel dispute. The nuclear deal is designed to ensure the programme does remain purely civilian in return for a shield against major sanctions but when former US president Donald Trump unilaterally pulled Washington out of the nuclear deal (formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) in May 2018, Iran lost that shield, thus making continued compliance with the JCPOA unrewarding. The three European powers that remain signed up to the accord—the UK, France and Germany—have, to Tehran’s disappointment, provided next to no protection from the Trump sanctions and Iran has been in recession for three years. New American president Joe Biden has said he will take the US back into the JCPOA, and thus lift the sanctions, if Iran verifiably restores compliance with the deal—to which China and Russia are also signed up—but Tehran says it will only do so after the US does away with the sanctions.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on February 17 that Iran wants to see "action not words" from the signatories of the nuclear deal. "We have heard many nice words and promises which in practice have been broken and opposite actions have been taken. Words and promises are no good. This time [we want] only action from the other side and we will also act," Khamenei said in a televised speech.

Iran was in full compliance with the nuclear deal when Trump pulled the US out of it.

The Vienna-based IAEA has said that Tehran told it that as of February 23, it would stop implementing JCPOA "voluntary transparency measures" including the so-called Additional Protocol, which allows IAEA inspectors to visit undeclared sites in Iran at short notice.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has played down the importance of the measures, saying ending them would not be a "significant step" because Tehran would remain in compliance with obligations under a Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, said on February 17 that the head of the UN atomic agency will visit Iran at the weekend.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Rouhani in a phone call on February 17 that Iran should send positive signals to increase the chances of a US return to the JCPOA, according to her spokesman.

The spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the German leader voiced her "concern that Iran continues to fail to meet its obligations under the nuclear agreement."

He said the chancellor also told Rouhani: "Now was the time for positive signals that create trust and increase the chances of a diplomatic solution."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told American National Public Radio on February 16 that “the path to diplomacy is open right now” with Iran over the JCPOA but would not address whether the Biden administration has had any direct engagement with Iranian officials.

“Iran is still a ways away from being in compliance [with the deal]. So we’ll have to see what it does,” Blinken added.