Iran Breaches Key Limit on Uranium Enrichment

On January 4, Iran resumed enriching uranium to 20 percent at an underground nuclear facility, a major breach of the 2015 nuclear deal. The landmark agreement, negotiated between Iran and six major world powers, stipulated that Tehran could only enrich uranium to 3.67 percent. It also banned uranium enrichment at Fordo – a facility built deep inside a mountain to protect it from a military strike – until 2031.

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Major Points of the JCPOAEnriching uranium up to 20 percent brought Iran to where it was before the nuclear accord: on the cusp of acquiring sufficient fuel for a nuclear weapon. Uranium must be enriched to 90 percent or above to fuel a weapon, but enriching uranium gets easier the more highly concentrated it is. Enriching from 20 percent to 90 percent could be a relatively quick process, if Tehran made the political decision to do so. Iran’s so-called breakout time – the time needed to enrich enough uranium for one nuclear bomb – has shortened from one year to about three months, the Institute for Science and International Security estimated in November 2020. Enriching to 20 percent could shorten the breakout time even further. On January 5, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced that 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges were being installed to further expand enrichment capacity. 

Iran has breached the nuclear deal at least six times in response to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018. Tehran first exceeded the deal’s limits on its uranium stockpile in July 2019 and on advanced centrifuges in September 2019. By November 2020, it had accumulated more than 12 times the amount of low enriched uranium permitted under the nuclear deal. Iran’s moves were calibrated to pressure European countries to help offset the negative impact of U.S. sanctions.

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But the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran has continued to cooperate with inspectors from the world’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran informed the IAEA of its plans to restart enrichment at Fordo on December 31. “The Agency has inspectors present in Iran on a 24/7 basis and they have regular access to Fordo,” the IAEA said. In a tweet on January 4, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif emphasized that all of Iran’s moves were “fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.” Zarif has repeatedly said that Iran would return to full compliance with the nuclear deal if the United States formally rejoined it. But President-elect Joe Biden has said that his administration would rejoin only after Iran came back into compliance. 

 

On January 4, the Trump administration called the move to enrich up to 20 percent “nuclear extortion,” while the European Union warned that the latest move was a “considerable departure” from the deal. “It is regrettable but it is also highly important and ... we will redouble our efforts to preserve the agreement and return to its full implementation by all parties,” an E.U. spokesman said on January 5. 

On January 6, Britain, France and Germany – all party to the nuclear deal – rebuked Iran and urged it to reverse course. “This action, which has no credible civil justification and carries very significant proliferation-related risks, is in clear violation of Iran’s commitments,” they said in a joint statement. “It also risks compromising the important opportunity for a return to diplomacy with the incoming U.S. Administration.”

China, which is party to the nuclear deal, urged all sides to “refrain from taking actions that might escalate tensions” to make space for diplomacy. “The urgent task at hand is for all sides to push the United States to return unconditionally to the agreement and remove all relevant sanctions,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on January 5. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the step was “a gross and total violation” of Iran’s commitments. “There is no other explanation except for the continued realization of Iran’s intention to manufacture nuclear weapons,” he claimed on January 4. 

Unlike previous moves, the decision to ramp up enrichment was not endorsed by President Hassan Rouhani’s government. On December 1, the Parliament, controlled by conservatives and hardliners, passed a bill requiring the government to immediately resume enriching uranium to 20 percent and to stockpile 120 kilograms (265 pounds) of it annually. Parliament also called on Rouhani to restrict IAEA inspectors if U.S. sanctions – on Iran's banking and oil sectors – were not lifted within a month. The bill was passed in response to the assassination of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020. Iran blamed Israel for the hit.

On December 2, Rouhani said that he opposed the bill because it could harm diplomatic efforts to lift U.S. sanctions on Iran. But the Guardian Council - a panel of 12 Islamic jurists and scholars that approves or vetoes all laws by the parliament – passed a modified version of the law. It extended the deadline to lift oil and banking sanctions from one to two months. The resolution demanded that the government begin enriching uranium up to 20 percent immediately.

 

Updated