Iran has unveiled a redevelopment of part of its Arak heavy water reactor. While the move does not overtly violate international restrictions on its nuclear work, it does reveal flagrant disregard of U.S. pressure to discontinue advancement of the sector efforts by the Islamic Republic.
The reactor in Arak, located about 250 kilometers southwest of Tehran, was closed in accordance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, because Iran’s international partners argued it could eventually be used to produce the plutonium necessary to produce atom bombs. Tehran was nevertheless permitted to manufacture limited levels of heavy water, and has recently resumed renovation of the reactor.
In remarks broadcast live on state TV Monday (December 23), the head of Iran’s atomic agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, proclaimed that “Today we are … starting a noteworthy section of the reactor.”
According to state media, technicians switched on a secondary circuit at Arak, which was constructed to produce the heavy water used as a moderator to slow down reactions in the core of nuclear reactors.
Moreover, Salehi declared there will be “no more negotiations on the JCPOA… what do we want to negotiate about again?”
The Islamic Republic has been resuming nuclear activity in a defiant reaction to the United States’ 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA international deal meant to limit Tehran’s ability to develop atomic weapons. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump maintains the pull-back and reimposition of harsh sanctions lifted under the 2015 pact will force Iran to negotiate more favorable terms. Tehran, which has always said its nuclear work is for peaceful purposes such as power generation and medical work, adamantly insists it will not reopen talks until Washington’s punitive economic measures have been nullified.
The semi-official news agency Mehr reported the first circuit in the Arak facility would remove the heat from the reactor, and the secondary circuit would transfer the heat from the first circuit to the cooling towers before transferring it to “the outside environment”.
Salehi said the reactor would be ready for initial tests in March 2021.
Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khamenei personally ordered the crackdown against last month’s anti-regime protests that left at least 1,500 people during less than two weeks of unrest that started on November 15 in what became the bloodiest and most brutal crackdown on protesters since the Islamic Republic was founded four decades ago. That, according to a special investigation just published by Reuters.
The mass unrest was sparked by a government announcement of a 200% spike in gas prices, fueled by U.S. sanctions. Young and working-class people flooded the streets nationwide within just hours, in demonstrations that quickly widened into anti-government rallies representing one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s clerical rulers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The protests reached more than 100 cities and towns, where there were public calls for the Islamist clerical leaders to step down. In videos posted on social media, a similar chant rang out: “While they live like kings, the people get poorer.”
Based on confirmation from three sources close to the Ayatollah’s inner circle and a fourth official, Reuters reported that Khamenei had become enraged when protests reached the capital Tehran on November 17, where masses demanded an end to the Islamic Republic and the downfall of its leaders. Eyewitnesses and other videos attest to the burning of Khamenei’s pictures amid calls for the return of Reza Pahlavi, who is the exiled son of the toppled Shah of Iran now living in the U.S. The Supreme Leader was also reportedly furious over the destruction of a statue of the Republic’s late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The 80-year-old leader, who has ruled the Islamic Republic with an iron grip for three decades with final say over all state matters in the country, immediately convened an emergency meeting the same evening. According to testimony from one of the sources, in a raised voice Khamenei told President Hassan Rouhani, Cabinet members and other senior officials, “The Islamic Republic is in danger. Do whatever it takes to end it. You have my order.”
Those gathered at the Supreme Leader’s official residence at a fortified compound in central Tehran were said to have been in agreement that the protesters aimed to bring down the regime. One source said, “The enemies wanted to topple the Islamic Republic and immediate reaction was needed.”
Reuters also cited a fourth official, who had been briefed on the meeting, who Khamenei made it abundantly clear the demonstrations required a forceful response.
“Our Imam,” said the official, referring to Khamenei, “only answers to God. He cares about people and the Revolution. He was very firm and said those rioters should be crushed.”
Khamenei has scathingly condemned the protests as the result of a “very dangerous conspiracy;” while other clerical rulers branded protesters as “thugs” they allege are allied with the Islamic Republic’s enemies, such as the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iranian media carried statements from the commander-in-chief of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hossein Salami, saying “The aim of our enemies was to endanger the existence of the Islamic Republic by igniting riots in Iran.”
Khamenei also warned his top lieutenants that they would be directly held responsible for any damage to the country if the protests weren’t immediately suppressed. A senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in western Kermanshah Province told Reuters that per instructions his unit was given by the provincial governor at a late-night emergency meeting on November 18, “We had orders from top officials in Tehran to end the protests,” and that there was to be “No more mercy.” The governor’s words, he said, were, “They are aiming to topple the Islamic Republic. But we will eradicate them.”
A female Tehran resident reached by telephone on November 18 told Reuters that “the smell of gunfire and smoke is everywhere,” as riot police appeared to be randomly shooting at protesters in the street “She added that “People were falling down and shouting,” while others sought refuge in houses and shops.
Other incidence of bloodshed included the reported-shooting of civilians by IRGC and police aboard motorcycles brandishing machine guns in the working-class city of Karaj. “Orders came from Tehran” to use whatever force necessary to end the protests immediately, said one local official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Push them back to their homes,” he reported being told, “even by shooting them.”
State TV said IRGC forces in armored vehicles and tanks opened fire on “rioters” hiding in the marshes near the strategically-important town of Mahshahr. Iranian officials described the southwestern Khuzestan province town as located near petrochemical complexes and a key energy route that, if blocked, would have created a crisis in the country. Video obtained by the U.S. State Department reportedly show the IRGC opening fire with machine guns mounted on trucks on surrounded protesters in Mahshahr without warning, that resulted in at least 100 deaths. One local official said, “The next day when we went there, the area was full of bodies of protesters, mainly young people,” and that “The Guards did not let us take the bodies.”
Iranian state television confirmed on December 3 report that there were isolated cases in which “some rioters were killed in clashes.” While an official death toll has never been released, three officials from the Iranian Interior Ministry have admitted the fatalities included at least 400 women, 17 teenagers and several defectors from the security forces and police. All other estimates have been rejected as “speculative.”
As far as damage, the Interior Minister also acknowledged on November 27 that as many as 200,000 people participated in the nationwide unrest; and that more than 140 government sites had been set on fire along with hundreds of banks and dozens of gas stations, while 50 bases used by security forces also came under attack.
Activists and details revealed by authorities point to a far more rapid deployment of lethal force by Iranian authorities than previous protests in recent years. The official death toll during waves of protests over economic hardships in 2017 and 2018 left 20 dead, while 72 people were killed when millions protested against the disputed re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
In response to Reuters allegation of 1,500 killed in the November 2019 protests, the semi-official Tasnim news agency published a response from a spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council dismissing it as “fake news.” An official government spokesman’s office has declined to comment.