A general view of the Arak heavy-water projec
A general view of the Arak heavy-water projec Reuters

Iran is illicitly stepping up purchases for its heavy water reactor in Arak, which if completed will produce enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons a year, UN diplomats said Tuesday, according to The Associated Press (AP).

The Arak research reactor is an issue of contention in talks between Iran and the six world powers to put long-term curbs on Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

The six powers want Iran to agree to re-engineer Arak to a light-water reactor that produces only minuscule amounts of plutonium. The Iranians would rather re-engineer it to produce less plutonium but that process is reversible, and therefore opposed by the Americans.

The allegation against Iran by an unnamed country, if true, would suggest that Tehran is rejecting the U.S. reconfiguration into a light-water reactor, noted AP.

The accusation was contained in a report to the Security Council sanctions committee prepared by experts monitoring sanctions against Iran, according to two diplomats familiar with the report. They spoke anonymously because the report hasn't been made public.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said he had no information about the purchase of any new equipment for Arak. "Iran has agreed not to set up new equipment in Arak facility and it has not done so ever since," he was quoted as having said.

The Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran because of concerns it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons and its refusal to suspend enrichment.

Tehran claims its nuclear program is peaceful and exists only to produce energy for civilian use.

Satellite images from two years ago showed that the Arak plant was operational, raising fears that it is trying to produce plutonium for a nuclear bomb. Iran invited inspectors to visit the plant last year, shortly after an interim agreement was signed with world powers.

The sanctions, which have chipped away at Iran's economy, include a ban on the import of nuclear and missile-related materials. If the overseas purchases for Arak are confirmed, they would violate sanctions.

In theory, purchases for the Arak reactor could be a deal breaker in negotiations between Iran and six major powers on a long-term nuclear deal. But the Americans appear determined to try and work out an agreement nonetheless, even while acknowledging that Iran is trying to evade sanctions on its nuclear program.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Washington not only knows and is concerned about "Iran's illicit procurement activities," but has spoken about them publicly and has imposed penalties on companies involved.

"Indeed it is in part precisely because of our concerns about Iran's procurement activities that we believe it is vital to see if we can conclude a comprehensive agreement that gives us transparency into Iran's nuclear program," she said, according to AP.