Iran has acted to cut its most sensitive nuclear stockpile by nearly 75 per cent, as it implements a landmark pact with world powers.
The monthly update by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which verifies evidence that Iran is living up to its part of the accord, made clear that Iran so far was undertaking the agreed steps to curb its nuclear programme.
As a result, it is gradually gaining access to some previously blocked overseas funds. Japan has made two more payments totalling £600 million to Iran for crude imports.
However, a planned facility it will need to fulfil the six-month deal has been delayed.
Under the breakthrough agreement that took effect on 20 January, Iran halted some aspects of its nuclear programme in exchange for a limited easing of international sanctions that have laid low the major oil producer’s economy.
It was designed to buy time for negotiations on a final, long-term settlement of the decade-old dispute over nuclear activities that Iran says are peaceful but the West fears may be directed toward developing an atomic weapon capability.
Those talks were made possible by the election last year of a pragmatist, Hassan Rouhani, as Iranian president, after years of confrontation with the West under his hardline predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The talks got under way in February and are aimed at reaching an agreement by 20 July.
Washington has not ruled out military action against Iran if diplomacy were to fail. The IAEA update showed Iran had – as stipulated by the November agreement with the US, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia – diluted half of its higher-grade enriched uranium reserve to a fissile content less prone to bomb proliferation. One of the payments from Japan, of £270m on Tuesday, had hinged on Iran meeting this target.
Tehran has also continued to convert the other half of its stock of uranium gas refined to a 20 per cent fissile purity – a relatively short technical step from 90 per cent weapons-grade material – into oxide for making reactor fuel.
Together, Iran has in the past three months either diluted or fed into the conversion process a total of almost 155kg of its higher-grade uranium gas, which amounted to 209kg when the deal came into force, a bit less than the roughly 250kg experts say would be needed for a bomb, if refined more.
This will be seen as a positive development by western states, since it lengthens the time Iran would need for any possible effort to amass enough fissile material for the core of a nuclear weapon.
The Islamic Republic has insisted it is refining uranium only to fuel nuclear reactors, not bombs.
The IAEA’s latest report also pointed to a new delay in Iran’s construction of a plant designed to turn low-enriched uranium gas into an oxide powder that is not suitable for further processing into highly-enriched bomb-grade uranium.
Iran told the IAEA last month that the site would be commissioned on 9 April. But yesterday’s update by the UN nuclear watchdog said the commissioning had been put off, without giving any reason.
However, the IAEA said: “Iran has indicated to the agency that this will not have an adverse impact on the implementation of [its] undertaking” to convert the uranium gas.
If it complies with the interim deal, Iran will receive a total of £2.5bn in revenues long frozen overseas, in eight instalments over the January-July period.
Including Japan’s latest payments, Iran has received a total of £1.5bn.
South Korea, another importer of Iranian oil, has made one payment.