Iran takes nuclear centrifuges offline
Iran's hardliners protested yesterday when the regime yielded to more than a decade of Western demands and began removing thousands of centrifuges from two nuclear plants.
Starting in 2003, Iran's leaders amassed 19,500 centrifuges in the teeth of international pressure - and vowed never to give them up. These highly sensitive machines could be used to make weapons-grade uranium.
It was the discovery that Iran was installing centrifuges that began the long confrontation over the country's nuclear ambitions.
Yet the steady expansion of Iran's ability to enrich uranium went into reverse when experts started to remove two thirds of the centrifuges, in compliance with the nuclear agreement signed in Vienna in July.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, said "preliminary work" had begun. Earlier, 20 hardline MPs sent a letter of protest to president Hassan Rouhani.
"Unfortunately, in the last two days some contractors entered Fordow [a nuclear fac- ility] and started dismantling centrifuges," wrote the MPs.
Iran was once installing as many as 700 new centrifuges a month, placing them inside the two enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow.
The beginning of the removal of these machines amounted to a "historic turning point", said Mark Fitzpatrick, head of non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"For the first time, they're scaling back. The number of installed centrifuges is moving downwards and not upwards, and that's significant," he said.
Under the terms of the Vienna agreement, Iran must place 13,400 centrifuges in storage in Natanz for up to 15 years. The machines will be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure they are not returned to operation.
Only when this process is complete - and Iran has also disposed of 98pc of its low- enriched uranium and removed the core of a heavy water reactor - will America and its allies respond by lifting the most damaging economic sanctions.
These concessions are bitterly controversial inside Iran, where 59 MPs defied the leadership by voting against the nuclear agreement. One MP went so far as to declare that Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, should be executed for signing the deal.
Mr Rouhani has stressed that the centrifuges will be stored, not dismantled, and the Vienna agreement would, in theory, allow them to be returned to service after 15 years.