In a sign of growing tension between the United States and Iran, kicked off by Donald Trump in May 2018 when he withdrew from the multilateral 2015 agreement designed to curb Tehran’s nuclear development, Iranian officials announced Saturday that they plan to begin enriching uranium to 20% at the nation’s underground Fordo plant. The agreement set 3.67% as the upper limit of enrichment and also put a ceiling for how much of the enriched uranium can be stockpiled. In a previously announced move, Iran has enriched some uranium to 4.5%.
The 3.67% enrichment is all that is required to supply fuel for electricity-generating nuclear reactors. Enrichment to 20% is needed for research and making medical isotopes. But it’s also a much easier leap from 20% to the 90% required to make a nuclear weapon than from 3.67% to 20%. Some experts belief that Iran could already make such a weapon within six months if a decision was made to do so. Having a stockpile of 20% enriched uranium on hand for further enrichment would cut that time even more. For context, about 1,400 pounds of low-enriched uranium must be concentrated to 90% to yield the 35 or so pounds of weapons-grade uranium needed to build a nuclear weapon.
Iranian officials continue to assert, as they have for decades, that their nuclear program is wholly peaceful, and the nation has no intention of building such weapons. U.S. and other Western intelligence experts say that until 2002, Iran was secretly working on nuclear weapons. Tehran has repeatedly denied this.
After Trump left the agreement and reimposed crippling economic sanctions that had been removed in exchange for nuclear development curtailment, Iran publicly reneged on one element, announcing it was going to exceed the stockpile’s limits. By November 2020, it had reached 5,386 pounds, 12 times the level allowed by the nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA had allowed Iran to sell enriched uranium exceeding the ceiling to other nations, but Trump’s reimposed sanctions eliminated this possibility. Iran had a choice: It could bend to the U.S. action by stopping enrichment, or breach the agreement. Iranian authorities made clear at the time that if the U.S. would return to the full force of the agreement, Iran would, too. It has repeated this pledge several times since.
Last Sunday, the Iranian parliament passed a bill calling for 20% enrichment ,and also calling for an end to international inspections of Iran’s nuclear program. While those moves have been approved by a constitutional oversight body in Iran, they still require implementation by President Hassan Rouhani.
The enrichment announcement comes on the eve of the anniversary of the U.S. assassination of Major Gen. Qasem Soleimani and in the wake of the assassination in late November of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a killing that many observers say Israel conducted, with a possible nod from Washington. Iran and other sources also blame Israel for the assassinations of four other Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years.
Until Trump decided to wreck what he labeled a “decayed and rotting” agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency charged with inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities had found the nation to be in full compliance with it. Since then, except for the specific breaches Iran has announced in advance, the inspectors have continued to find Iran following the agreement’s provisions to the letter.
Shortly after Fakhrizadeh was killed, when many members of Iran’s parliament threatened to end inspections, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said, “We understand the distress, but at the same time it is clear that no one, starting with Iran, would have anything to win from a decrease, limitation or interruption of the work we do together with them.” Grossi also noted that “(t)his is not the first time that parliamentarians have expressed themselves in this way or in very similar ways.” Now, however, it’s not just debate. The parliament has formalized the call to stop inspections.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has twice in the past month sent B-52s on missions from their North Dakota base to the Persian Gulf as warnings to Iran. A nuclear submarine, the USS Georgia, has been sent there as well. At the same time, the USS Nimitz, the only U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, has been ordered home, all of which some unnamed sources suggest may indicate a split at the Pentagon over how to proceed with Iran.
The U.S., which—with the Stuxnet worm—launched a successful cyberattack against Iran’s enrichment operations at Natanz in 2008-2010, has blamed Iranian hackers for recent cyberattacks against various civil targets in the United States. After an explosion this summer at its Natanz nuclear facility, Iran said this was perhaps the result of another U.S. cyberattack.
The heat keeps rising. Golnar Motevalli at Bloomberg reports:
Iran’s foreign minister accused Israel of concocting a just cause for Washington to start a war against the Islamic Republic as Iranians marked the first anniversary of the U.S. assassination of a top general.
Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran had new intelligence from Iraqi sources showing that “Israeli agent-provocateurs” were staging attacks on U.S. targets, laying a “trap” for outgoing President Donald Trump to start a conflict and jettison his successor Joe Biden’s plans to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord. He didn’t give further details about the nature of the intelligence.
The comments show that while Iran wants to make clear that it won’t hesitate to defend itself against U.S. military action, it does not want to escalate conflict and sees Trump’s allies in the region as trying to start a war and to exploit a possible divide within the defense community in Washington over whether Trump should strike Iran.
President-elect Joe Biden has suggested that he would bring the United States back to the nuclear deal, offering Iran a “credible path back to diplomacy.” He told The New York Times last year that “it’s going to be hard,” but that “the last goddamn thing we need in that part of the world is a build-up of nuclear capability.” Iranian President Rouhani said in December that if Biden “returns to the situation as it was in 2017, then so will we.”
As desirable a step back from the precipice that this would be, numerous obstacles stand in the way, namely hard-liners in both Iran and the United States. In Iran, foes of the original agreement say they were vindicated by the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, reimposition of sanctions, and the assassinations. They are among Iranians who support development of nuclear weapons. In the U.S. Senate, where most Republicans and a few Democrats opposed the agreement from the beginning, and one cohort has long supported bombing all Iran’s nuclear facilities, opposition remains strong and will make a battle of any return to the 5½-year-old agreement.
In November, Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs :
From Iran to North Korea, Russia to Saudi Arabia, Trump has made the prospect of nuclear proliferation, a new nuclear arms race, and even the use of nuclear weapons more likely. As president, I will renew our commitment to arms control for a new era. The historic Iran nuclear deal that the Obama-Biden administration negotiated blocked Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Yet Trump rashly cast the deal aside, prompting Iran to restart its nuclear program and become more provocative, raising the risk of another disastrous war in the region. I’m under no illusions about the Iranian regime, which has engaged in destabilizing behavior across the Middle East, brutally cracked down on protesters at home, and unjustly detained Americans. But there is a smart way to counter the threat that Iran poses to our interests and a self-defeating way—and Trump has chosen the latter.
The fact that some of the regional states which opposed the JCPOA – Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain – have recently signed normalisation agreements sponsored and heavily promoted by the Trump administration will make their interests much harder to ignore.
“If we’re going to negotiate the security of our part of the world, we should be there,” the UAE’s ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, told the audience at a recent seminar organised by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
The ambassador’s determination was echoed by his Israeli interlocutor, the institute’s director, Amos Yadlin. “Israel also wants to be at the table,” Mr Yadlin said, “with our allies in the Middle East.”
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