Iran has started enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. This is the most significant breach to date of the 2015 agreement that placed limits on its nuclear technology program.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard also took control of a South Korean oil tanker in the Persian Gulf on Monday that it was alleged to have repeatedly violated “environmental protocols,” according to semi-official Tasnim news agency.
The moves coincide with escalating tensions between Iran and the United States to mark the one year anniversary of the American assassination of former Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Suleimani on January 3.
Taken together, Iran’s recent actions suggest that it is responding to US pressure on the country in the final weeks of the administration of President Donald Trump’s departure with its own counter-maneuvers, part of a long-standing doctrine of American escalations of its own connect has been described repeatedly by senior Iranian officials.
However, analysts say Iran is also trying to strengthen its position ahead of possible talks with the government of President-elect Joseph Biden.
“Iran wants to prevent a possible strike by the US,” said Thomas Juneau, Middle East specialist at the University of Ottawa and a former analyst with the Canadian Department of Defense. “It has to signal that it can act. At the same time, Iran is using its parts to maximize its position with the Biden government upon taking office. The US is under massive pressure and needs to build assets that it is trading away. ”
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said Iran has begun increasing fortification levels beyond the five percent threshold required to fuel power reactors early in the morning at its underground mountain facility at Fordow, which is itself a site that was to be mothballed under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal that was abandoned by Mr Trump in 2018.
Iran has steadily expanded its nuclear program beyond the limits set by the JCPOA in response to an aggressive campaign of US sanctions that have harmed its economy.
“We have resumed the 20 percent enrichment required by our parliament,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter. “Our remedial action fully complies [the] JCPOA after years of non-compliance by several other JCPOA participants. Our measures are fully reversible if fully adhered to by ALL. ”
Uranium enriched with 20 percent is not enough to fire a bomb that requires a purity of 80 percent or more. While uranium enrichment is a technically complex and difficult process, physicists believe that enrichment at higher levels is much easier after mastering the initial stages.
“This is a significant escalation,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of nuclear non-proliferation for the Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank and advocacy group. “Enrichment to 20 percent accounts for around 90 percent of the work required to manufacture weapons-grade uranium. Twenty percent poses a more serious risk of proliferation, and stockpiling material at this level will shorten Iran’s breakout time faster. “
Mr. Rabiei said the International Atomic Energy Agency had been informed of Iran’s decision. If this were verified by inspectors, Iran’s move would undermine the efforts of President-elect Joseph Biden’s administration to re-enter the agreement after taking office on Jan. 20, as well as the ongoing attempt by the other signatories to keep the JCPOA alive. complicate. including the United Kingdom, Germany and France.
Iran has not produced 20 percent enriched uranium since 2013, when it was suspended from the JCPOA under a preliminary nuclear deal. It eventually agreed to sell its 300 kilogram supply of enriched uranium to Russia, which, along with China, also signed the deal that Mr Trump had abandoned and whose allies had tried to sabotage.
The decision to resume production of 20 percent enriched nuclear fuel comes just weeks after the murder of military scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who is believed to be the father of the Iranian nuclear program, in a hit against Israel.
Iran has vowed to take revenge for the killing in a number of ways, including expanding dormant portions of its nuclear program. While Iran’s nuclear measures amount to signal exercises that can be quickly undone once Mr Biden takes office and potentially lift sanctions, there is a risk that his measures will be misinterpreted by others, Juneau said.
“As much as it tries to avoid confrontation, the signals it sends could be misunderstood as provocation by the Trump administration,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Iranian armed forces are due to begin a massive two-day drone exercise over the deserts of the central province of Semnan.
Tensions between the US and Iran have increased in recent weeks. On Sunday, the US military announced that it would reverse its decision to remove a group of battleships led by the USS Nimitz from the Persian Gulf, citing “threats” against US officials, which may include comments from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that Trump would end up like Saddam Hussein, who was hanged on the gallows in 2006.
“Due to the recent threats by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other US government officials, I have ordered the USS Nimitz to cease its routine redeployment,” Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller said in a statement late Sunday. “Nobody should doubt the determination of the United States of America.”
The Hankuk Chemi, the giant tanker seized by the Revolutionary Guard, was loaded with 7,200 tons of ethanol and had left the port of al-Jubeil in Saudi Arabia for South Korea and was docked in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas until a court case was pending, agencies reported.
Mr Biden and members of his new team have stated that they are ready to rejoin the JCPOA while negotiating other aspects of what they term Iran as disruptive behavior in the region, including its support for armed groups and its missile program. However, a bill that the Iranian legislature tabled in the last few days would prohibit any talks with the US on any subject other than the nuclear program.
While Iran has made its intent to increase its enrichment levels transparent and allowed inspectors to watch the process, the move risks undermining a restoration of the JCPOA.
“I think this is part of the Iranian campaign to pressure the US to rejoin the JCPOA and get sanctions relief,” said Ms. Davenport. “I am concerned that Iran is misalibrating its leverage. Europeans warned Iran is taking this step and their patience is waning. “