Iran Announces Major Break from Nuclear Agreement, Causing Concern for West
Accelerated uranium enrichment comes weeks before change in US administration
Iran escalated tension in the Persian Gulf on Monday, announcing it had begun to enrich uranium at a level closer to that required for a nuclear weapon and also seizing a South Korean oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.
The two moves come as Iranians observe the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Tehran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, by a US drone in Baghdad. US and Israeli forces have been on high alert in recent days as both countries brace for revenge attacks by Iran or its proxies.
Following through on its promise from Friday to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Islamic Republic began enriching uranium to 20% purity levels at its Fordow site on Monday, up from the 4.5% level it had previously reached.
The step marks a dangerous departure from the country’s latest nuclear policy, and a return to the activity carried out by Iran before it signed the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with UN Security Council members and Germany.
Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear program for 10 years in return for the lifting of international sanctions. The United States, under President Donald Trump, withdrew from the accord in 2018 in favor of a “maximum pressure” policy against Iran. Several months later, Iran announced it would begin enriching uranium at a slightly higher level than the 3.67% purity allowed.
Hours after Tehran’s announcement on Monday that it was enriching uranium to 20% purity, the European Union condemned the increase in uranium enrichment as a “considerable departure” from the JCPOA.
The move would have “serious nuclear nonproliferation implications,” the EU said in a statement.
An IAEA spokesperson said the agency’s inspectors were studying the matter and that Director-General Rafael Grossi would submit a report on their findings “later” on Monday.
“Our remedial action conforms fully with [paragraph] 36 of JCPOA, after years of noncompliance by several other JCPOA participants,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif tweeted on Monday.
“Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.”
“This is the culmination of a process started in the summer of 2019, when Iran began withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with a number of careful, deliberate steps,” Dr. Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran and a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line.
“It’s not very surprising, but the timing is interesting,” he said. “The assumption was that they wouldn’t take another step forward [toward weapons-grade uranium] before [President-elect Joe] Biden steps into the White House, to give him a chance to comply with their demands” to lift US sanctions.
Zimmt said that while there is a link between Iran’s announcement and the mysterious November killing of its top nuclear official, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the main reason is “to generate another bargaining chip with which to pressure Biden.”
In late November, Fakhrizadeh, who is considered the founder as well as the head of Iran’s nuclear program, was gunned down in an ambush outside Tehran that has been attributed to Israeli special agents.
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned that “Iran’s decision to continue violating its commitments, to raise the enrichment level and advance the industrial ability to enrich uranium underground, can’t be explained in any way except as continued realization of its intention to develop a military nuclear program.”
Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons
Netanyahu signed off his tweet with a warning: “Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons.”
“The [uranium] enrichment is significant, but I have a hard time seeing Israel or Trump taking military steps now. It doesn’t call for that yet,” Zimmt said.
Also on Monday, Iran seized a South Korean tanker at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Seoul has withheld $7 billion in Iranian assets in accordance with US sanctions. Tehran in recent months has sought leverage to unblock the sum, which it says South Korea must pay for Iranian oil it received.
We should distinguish between revenge and reaction. The reaction to the US and alleged Israeli actions is the advancement of the nuclear program. Revenge is separate, and may or may not come – depending mostly on Iran’s capabilities
Is Monday’s news Iran’s retaliation for the killings of Soleimani and Fakrizadeh? Can the matter now be considered settled between Iran and its Western foes? Zimmt advised caution.
“We should distinguish between revenge and reaction. The reaction to the US and alleged Israeli actions is the advancement of the nuclear program. Revenge is separate, and may or may not come – depending mostly on Iran’s capabilities.”