The Atomic Energy Organisation Iran (AEOI) said on 19 March that it will cold test its redesigned Arak nuclear reactor as a prelude to fully commissioning it later in the year. AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi told ISNA that the cold testing, which usually includes the initial startup of fluid systems and support systems, will take place early in the Iranian New Year that begins this Sunday. “In other words, we have advanced work in the field of fuel, storage, etc,” Kamalvandi said.
Iran agreed to restructure the reactor at Arak - about 250 km southwest of Tehran - under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), reached between Iran and major world states in 2015. Under the agreement Iran agreed to limit its nuclear development programme in return for the lifting of sanctions, some of which had been in place for more than 35 years. The redesign, supported by experts from the UK and China under the JCPOA, was intended to reduce the amount of plutonium the heavy water reactor would produce. The reactor will be used for research and to make isotopes for medical and agricultural use.
In May 2018, former US President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions. Iran remained fully compliant with the agreement for a year but when the European parties to the deal failed to do anything to mitigate the US sanctions, Tehran began in May 2019 to scale back its JCPOA commitments under Articles 26 and 36 of the accord.
In one of its latest steps away from the deal, Iran in January announced the beginning of the process to enrich uranium to 20% at its Fordow facility. However, the restructuring of the Arak reactor has continued. Earlier this year, the Iranian parliament passed a law that allows Tehran to further expand its nuclear programme unless the US rejoins the JCPOA and to end intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring of its facilities. However, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has twice intervened to keep basic monitoring in place to give time for diplomatic moves aimed at bringing the USA back into the JCPOA.
In an interview with the US news outlet Politico released on 17 March, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reiterated Iran's readiness to adhere to the deal "as soon as the United States comes to compliance". He firmly rejected US suggestions that a new agreement should be negotiated to include wider defence issues instead of the JCPOA. He said this would “go nowhere”.
"We are ready to agree to a choreography—that is, the US taking steps, and as soon as we can confirm that those steps have been taken, we can take our steps.” he stressed. He added that Iran's compliance will "not take time" after Washington makes a relevant step which should stipulate the US lifting all its sanctions. He warned that if the USA "continues its lack of compliance, it means that Iran will take new steps, as it is very clearly and transparently defined in the law".
As to the new Iranian law, Zarif said: "It is not an ultimatum to anybody. It's a domestic law addressed to the government of Iran and we need to observe that law. As soon as the United States comes back into compliance [with the JCPOA], everything will reverse."