WASHINGTON – Iran’s decision to drastically increase uranium enrichment should strengthen its hand in future negotiations with President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, experts, European diplomats and former US officials say.
The move reflects Iran’s growing desperation to lift US economic sanctions, but it risks provoking a confrontation with Israel or the US during President Donald Trump’s final weeks in office.
Iran is betting that the move, along with the seizure of a South Korean tanker in the Persian Gulf, will put pressure on the West and the incoming Biden team to act quickly to revive the 2015 international nuclear deal and punish US sanctions repeal have devastated the Iranian economy, experts said.
“Iran is sending a clear message to the Biden administration that it is still interested in Biden acting quickly before the window closes,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of non-proliferation at the non-profit arms control association.
But she added: “Iran must be careful not to overplay its hand.”
By enriching uranium to 20 percent, Iran will be just one technical step away from producing the weapons-grade material needed for an atomic bomb. Calling it “a significant escalation,” Davenport said, “20 percent is about 90 percent of the work it takes to get gun quality.”
If Iran is looking to defuse tensions, the increasing enrichment can still be reversed, along with other incremental violations of the 2015 agreement Iran implemented over the past 18 months, Davenport and other experts said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested keeping the door to diplomacy open – if all signatories to the agreement were to become compliant again. “Our actions are fully reversible if ALL are fully adhered to,” he said tweeted on Monday.
As soon as the United States fulfills its obligations under the agreement and adheres to the resolution of the United States Security Council approving the agreement, “Iran will then quickly return to compliance with the nuclear agreement,” said Alireza Miryousefi, spokeswoman for the Iranian mission of the United States.
The nuclear deal, which was supposed to prevent Iran from building an atomic bomb, imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to ease US and international sanctions. President Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2018, imposing lifted sanctions and introducing layers of new sanctions.
In response, Iran has gradually violated the terms of the agreement and has not terminated the agreement entirely. When the deal was first implemented and Tehran met its terms, Iran’s “breakout time” to secure enough weapons-grade material for an atomic bomb was 12 months. Now the breakout time has dropped to around three to four months due to Iran’s violations.
Biden has promised to return the US to what is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if Iran again complies with its regulations. Biden has said he wants to prevent Iran from building a nuclear arsenal, and Tehran seems to be signaling that if the next president doesn’t act quickly to ease economic pressure on Iran, he could abandon the deal and pursue clandestine nuclear weapons Project.
“By taking this move so close to Biden’s inauguration, Iran is getting itself to the top of the headlines and creating a sense of urgency in its nuclear activities,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy official with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Geranmayeh and other experts said the move is also a way to appease tougher line elements in Iran who remain skeptical of the nuclear deal and who are taking revenge against the US and Israel after the murder of leading nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whom Iran accused Israel wanted to. the suspect sabotage an enrichment plant in Natanz and the murder of the top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a US drone attack in Baghdad a year ago.
Compared to the alternatives, the decision to expand uranium enrichment is a calibrated move that will continue to allow Iran to lower temperatures in the future, Geranmayeh said.
“It’s still very calculated, managed, and reversible,” she said.
Nonetheless, Iran’s enrichment decision constitutes a serious violation of the nuclear deal. Tehran has not enriched uranium to 20 percent purity since it was signed in 2015, and the agreement only allowed an enrichment of up to 3.67 percent. Iran had already exceeded this level last year, enriching it to less than five percent, and has well exceeded the limits of the amount of low-enriched uranium it could store.
Iran also said on Monday that it had made progress in its enrichment process, cutting the time for uranium enrichment from 24 to 12 hours to 20 percent.
The Trump administration and other opponents of the nuclear deal say Iran should not be rewarded for violating the deal and that it has always used the threat to receive the bomb to make concessions to the Western powers.
On Monday, the Foreign Ministry described Iran’s expanded enrichment as “a clear attempt to step up its nuclear extortion campaign, an attempt that will continue to fail”.
Richard Goldberg, who served on President Trump’s National Security Council, said Iran’s expanded fortification work and other measures are aimed at creating “an atmosphere of crisis” in order to spark a Washington response.
“It is noteworthy that the steps they take are almost always modulated to go far enough to cause media hype but not too far to provoke an American or Israeli strike,” Goldberg said now Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Think Tank.
The last time Tehran enriched uranium to 20 percent, Israel weighed military action against Iran and prompted Washington to continue the diplomacy that led to the 2015 accord. President Barack Obama’s first defense secretary, Robert Gates, wrote in his treatise “Duty” that “Israel’s leaders were out to launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday condemned Iran’s enrichment and warned: “Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon.”
The European powers Great Britain, France and Germany, who signed the 2015 treaty with the US, Russia and China, are cautiously optimistic that the Biden team will find a way to revive the deal with Iran. But they are concerned about the brinkmanship of all major players in the final days of Trump’s presidency, two European diplomats told NBC News.
Since the assassination of nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh in November, tensions have been high between Iran and its two archenemies, the US and Israel. After US officials accused Iranian-backed militias in Iraq of firing rockets at American embassy grounds in Baghdad on December 20, President Trump warned Iran. “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If an American is killed, I will hold Iran accountable,” the president said tweeted. “Think about it.”
In the run-up to the anniversary of Soleimani’s death on January 3, the Trump administration dispatched B-52 bombers in a flight over the region and a nuclear-powered submarine to the Persian Gulf. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller first ordered the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz home and then turned around saying the carrier would remain in the Middle East. Miller said the decision stemmed from Iranian threats against Trump and other US officials, but did not provide details on the reasons for his U-turn.
While Iran celebrated the first anniversary of Soleimani’s death on January 3, 2020 and announced its uranium enrichment plans, its Revolutionary Guards seized a South Korean tanker, the MT Hankuk Chemi, on Monday, which was sailing to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. The ship was carrying a chemical shipment including methanol.
Iran claimed it had seized the ship for allegedly polluting the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Iran of threatening the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and of trying to extort relief from economic sanctions.
Iran is looking to gain access to approximately $ 7 billion of frozen assets in South Korea through oil sales suspended due to Trump administration sanctions.
“This is a regime that is on the wall financially, running out of cash very quickly, and identifying all the places that have cash that could be used quickly to avoid financial collapse,” Goldberg said.
Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to President-elect Biden, who helped negotiate the 2015 deal, reiterated that the next president was ready to revert to the deal and suggested that the new administration discuss issues that might arise over the go beyond original deals, including Iran’s growing ballistic missile arsenal. He told CNN on Sunday that when Iran returns to comply with the 2015 nuclear deal, there will be a “follow-up negotiation” on its missile capabilities.
“In these broader negotiations we can ultimately set limits to Iranian ballistic missile technology,” said Sullivan, “and we want to try to achieve that through diplomacy.”
However, Iran has ruled out any negotiations on its ballistic missiles, stating it is only interested in reviving the nuclear deal drawn up five years ago.
Meanwhile, the Iranian economy with foreign exchange reserves remains under severe pressure declining. Tehran has applied for a $ 5 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund, but the US has blocked the application.
Amid severe economic troubles in Iran, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei left no doubt last month that he supports efforts to ease economic pressure on his country and lift US sanctions.
“If the sanctions can be lifted, we shouldn’t put off even an hour … If the sanctions can be lifted in the right, wise … and dignified way, it must be done,” he said told Government officials.