Iran Commits to Heavy Water Reactor as Japan Sends Forces

In another advancement of Iran’s nuclear strategy, it revealed that work on its Arak heavy water reactor has continued following a 4-year shutdown. Unlike its previous moves of reduced compliance to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Tehran’s ambitions at Arak do not break the provisions of the deal. However, it is yet another signal that unless the US and Iran can reach a compromise, Tehran’s nuclear program is barreling full-speed ahead.

The JCPOA imposed stiff limits across a broad range of nuclear capabilities in return for the lifting of US sanctions. Although the nuclear deal capped heavy water production and stipulated that excess material be sold on the international market. Furthermore, fuel used in its production was also required to be sent outside of the state. 

Reopening the Arak Reactor

The nuclear deal between Iran and the western signatories did not entirely prohibit nuclear production. Instead, it provided a framework allowing for the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes alongside strict oversight from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The reactor at Arak was the focus of one of the demands when Iran signed the JCPOA. In the reactor’s former condition, the US and its allies believed it was capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Iran was permitted to keep the Arak reactor open only after it underwent a redesign. 

Tehran closed the reactor in 2015 and in the following January, announced it had destroyed the reactor core, filling it with cement. Inspectors were invited to verify its claims in order for the JCPOA implementation to proceed. 

Other world powers offered to help facilitate the transition for the Arak reactor, but it seems Iran undertook a bulk of the work itself. Especially in light of the dispute with Washington, nuclear technology and expertise is difficult to transfer to Iran. Even so, in the 4 years that have passed since its closure, Tehran’s nuclear team was able to modernize the plant and retrofit it for medical and agricultural use.

“Today we are … starting a noteworthy section of the reactor,” Ali Akbar Saleh, the head of Iran’s atomic agency, said on Iranian TV, according to Reuters. The control room at Arak will be finished in 5 to 6 months with the full installation coming online for initial testing in March 2021.

Appealing to Japan for Mediation

So far, there has been no reaction from US President Donald Trump, but Iran is counting on its nuclear progress to convince him to remove sanctions and return to the negotiating table. Communication between the two sides has seemingly stopped, leading Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to appeal to Japan for mediation assistance.

Rouhani visited Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo mid-December and came away from the meeting under the impression that Tokyo is willing. According to Japanese broadcaster NHK, Abe told his Iranian counterpart that his government would “try to fulfill our role to ease and stabilize the tension in the region.” 

Abe also stipulated that Iran must continue to abide by the nuclear deal, which it has incrementally walked away from.

Japan Deploys Forces for Intelligence-gathering

In a related matter, Japan announced it will deploy defence forces to the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and Gulf of Aden next year. The measure was provoked by attacks on oil tankers over the summer. The small group consisting of a destroyer with helicopters and a single P-3C plane will conduct intelligence-gathering activities. To underscore the limited scope of its mission, Tokyo said the group will not be authorized to use weapons to defend other vessels. 

The military group will not enter the Strait of Hormuz, a sign that Japan is unwilling to risk angering Tehran. Abe’s relationship with Rouhani may be the best chance at restoring the nuclear deal so it is unwise to risk damaging it. Still, Japan must take steps to protect its shipments. According to the New York Times, 90 percent of the state’s crude oil is imported from the Middle East. 

Abe was unsuccessful in bridging the divide between Tehran and Washington when he visited Rouhani in June, but this time may be different. Last week’s sudden trip came amid the backdrop of other new developments as Iran recently released an American prisoner, earning praise from Trump who tweeted, “we can make a deal together.”

Rouhani is playing every card he has at this point from increasing its nuclear development to releasing a prisoner and visiting Japan. Tokyo’s willingness to mediate could be a game changer, but his move to send a small force to monitor shipping avenues in the Middle East means that even Japan is not completely viewed as a friend.