Iran has started construction on a second nuclear reactor at its Bushehr power plant, a facility Tehran cites as its reason for breaking the enrichment limit set by the unravelling 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
While celebrating the start of construction, the politics of the moment were not lost on Iranian officials as a US pressure campaign of sanctions blocks Tehran from selling its crude oil abroad.
These sanctions took effect after US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in May 2018, lighting the fuse for the tensions now gripping the wider Middle East.
“It was not us who started breaking commitments, it was them who did not keep to their commitments and cannot accept the nuclear deal as a one-way road map,” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, said.
Bushehr is fuelled by uranium produced in Russia and is monitored by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
But Iran began 4.5% enrichment in part to supply Bushehr despite the deal limiting it to 3.67%.
While this is still nowhere near weapons-grade levels of 90%, nonproliferation experts warn Iran’s growing stockpile and increasing enrichment will begin to shave off time from the estimated year Tehran would need to gather enough material for an atomic bomb.
Iran has long maintained its program is for peaceful purposes, though the deal was designed to limit its enrichment program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
Those limits blocked its path to being able to have enough material for a bomb.
Concrete was poured into the prepared base of the second reactor in Bushehr, which is 700km (440 miles) south of Tehran, as journalists watched on Sunday.
Officials say the new reactor, and a third planned to be built, will each add over 1,000 megawatts to Iran’s power grid.
It is being built with assistance from Russia, which helped bring Bushehr’s first reactor online in 2011 after decades of delays.
Mr Salehi praised the plant’s operations.
He said: “The security of this power plant has been provided by the armed forces and its safety has been endorsed by international institutions.”
This comment appeared to be a dig at Gulf Arab states opposed to Tehran, who earlier raised concerns to the IAEA that Bushehr was a risk to the wider region over earthquakes that routinely hit Iran.
Meanwhile, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman rejected claims by the US and Israel over allegations of nuclear material being discovered at an undeclared site outside of Tehran.
An IAEA meeting last week appeared to include discussions over what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described in a United Nations speech in 2018 as a “secret atomic warehouse”.
The IAEA has said Iran “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” in a “structured program” through to the end of 2003.
Israeli officials allege material recovered from the warehouse came from that program.
“The Zionist regime and others are trying to re-open this case.
“We don’t accept this and we condemn these efforts,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said.