There seems to have been a breakthrough in the Iran talks, at least according to Iranian media (which, grain of salt and all), around the issue of the heavy-water IR-40 reactor at Arak, which was one of the disputes at the heart of the talks. The upshot is that Iran is willing to run the reactor on enriched uranium rather than natural uranium, and to run it at lower temperatures than its planned 40 megawatts, and the P5+1 have agreed to these terms. This compromise, if accurate, mirrors a proposal recently put forward in the journal Arms Control Today by a group of Princeton scientists, and it will substantially reduce the amount of plutonium produced by the reactor (alleviating much of the P5+1’s concern about Arak) while leaving the reactor at least as useful for the production of medical isotopes (its stated purpose, according to the Iranians). I’ve got a new piece up at Lobe Log that goes into that and also tries to explain what heavy-water reactors are and why, in general, they are a proliferation concern, even though there’s no evidence that IR-40, specifically, was one.
Reactors that are intended to be used for research (for example, to produce medical isotopes) rather than for power generation, often need to use uranium enriched to 20% U-235 or more, which in addition to being costly to produce is also itself a proliferation concern. PHWRs, again because D20 is such an efficient moderator, are an alternative in such applications. Iran insists that IR-40 is intended only to replace its aging Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes for cancer patients, but the P5+1 has expressed concern about its potential use in developing a weapon. The Joint Plan of Action that was signed in Geneva in November 2014 stipulated that Iran would take no steps toward bringing Arak online for its duration.
For all the P5+1’s supposed concern about Arak, it must be noted that, as Gareth Porter has pointed out, Iran has made no move to build the kind of reprocessing facility that would be needed to convert IR-40’s plutonium waste into weapons fuel. While it could build such a facility in the future, that would take considerable time and would not be easily concealed from IAEA inspectors, so Arak is not an imminent threat from a proliferation standpoint.
The most interesting aspect of this story to me has nothing to do with the nuclear talks but is about the city of Arak itself. The region in which Arak sits, about 150 miles southwest of Tehran, has been settled for centuries. Arak itself is apparently sitting on the same ground as a former village called Daskerah, which was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. Arak was founded there by a man named Yusuf Khan-i Gurji (Yusef Khan Gorji in more modern Anglicization) in 1795. The nisbah “Gurji” tells you that he was Georgian, and in fact he was driven out of Georgia, along with his men, because he wound up on the wrong side of the 18th-19th century Russian-Iranian struggle for influence in the Caucasus (SPOILER ALERT: Russia won). Catherine the Great supported Yusuf’s cousins, and Yusuf and his cousins apparently didn’t get along too well, so Yusuf made a deal with the Qajar Shah Mohammad Khan. He promised to lead his army into some Iranian territory that was at the time controlled by some rebellious tribes and was outside Mohammad Khan’s control, and pacify the region, provided he and his men could be allowed to settle there (and, presumably, be available to the Shah if he found himself in need of fighters for some reason).
Yusuf Khan built, apparently out of his own funds (another bonus for the usually cash-strapped Qajars), a fortress called Sultan Abad to control the newly pacified region. A town formed around and within the fortress, at first to house Yusuf’s men, but gradually, through the late 19th century, it became a larger and more diverse place. Its modern name, Arak, may actually derive from “Iraq,” since the region it occupies is known in antiquity as “Persian Iraq” (ʿiraq-i ʿajam or ʿiraq al-ʿajam, which actually means “foreign Iraq” in Arabic, and corresponds to the neighboring ʿiraq-i ʿarab or ʿiraq al-ʿarab, “Arab Iraq,” which is more or less modern Iraq or at least the region around Baghdad and south toward Basra). I stress “may,” because while “Arak” and “Iraq” do sound alike, in Persian they’re not spelled the same at all (of course, you wouldn’t expect perfect Persian spelling from a Georgian dude, would you?).