Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in a television interview this week that the negotiations surrounding the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement had required Iran to destroy the Arak reactor's calandria by filling it with cement, but Iran had secretly acquired replacement tubes ahead of time so that the reactor's functionality would not be ultimately affected.

Salehi also said that pictures that had circulated that showed the Arak reactor's pit filled with cement had been photoshopped. He explained that Iran has no intention to build a nuclear weapon, and that the Arak reactor is nonetheless incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.

The interview aired on Iran’s Channel 4 TV on Wednesday. Excerpts from the interview were translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

The cement, explained Salehi, was poured “into the calandria we pulled out [of the reactor]. Inside the calandria, there are tubes where the fuel goes. We had bought similar tubes, but I could not declare this at the time. Only one person in Iran knew this. We told no one but the top man of the regime [Khamenei].”

“When our team was in the midst of the negotiations, we knew that [the Westerners] would ultimately renege on their promises. The leader warned us that they were violators of agreements. We had to act wisely. Not only did we avoid destroying the bridges that we had built, but we also built new bridges that would enable us to go back faster if needed,” he continued.

“God willing, in the coming week, on the 30th or 31st of January, I will be going to Ardakan. From there, we will transfer 30 tons of yellowcake to Isfahan. Thirty tons. Ardakan has become operational,” claimed Salehi, adding, “We have advanced significantly in the field of nuclear propulsion. However, we must wait until we are certain about it before we announce it. For now, we have no intention to report about the nuclear propulsion [technology], but we are working on it. Suffice it to say that we are making rapid progress in this field, thank God.”

Iran has been threatening to restart its nuclear program ever since US President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal in May of 2018 and imposed two rounds of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Iran several months ago reopened a nuclear plant that was idle for nine years as it prepared to increase uranium enrichment capacity in response to Trump leaving the 2015 agreement.

Earlier this month, Salehi said Iran is taking preliminary steps to design uranium fuel with a purity of 20 percent for reactors instead of having to copy foreign designs.

The European signatories to the deal did not agree with Trump’s decision to leave the deal and have been trying to save the accord, which they see as crucial to forestalling an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Tehran has demanded that Europe come up with an economic package to offset the effects of the US withdrawal but so far has found Europe’s proposals to be unsatisfactory.