The fragility of the 2015 deal between Iran and world powers on its nuclear programme has been highlighted yet again by Iran’s return to enriching uranium to 20 percent, the latest in its steps away from the agreement’s limits.
Tehran says it has the right to breach the limits in retaliation for US President Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and insists all its moves are “reversible” as soon as the US rejoins.
According to experts, Trump’s departure from the White House may indeed open up a window of opportunity — albeit a narrow one — to save the deal.
What impact will Iran’s latest move have?
The 20 percent enrichment threshold was last achieved by Iran before the 2015 deal and its return to enriching to this level is its most spectacular breach of the deal so far.
However, it was done in the presence of inspectors from the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Despite a recent law passed by the Iranian parliament which calls for an end to such inspections, the IAEA continues to have access to country’s nuclear sites.
Best path to reverse Iran's latest move to leap to 20% uranium enrichment is to bring all countries, incl. US, back into full compliance with #JCPOA. Europeans committing to redoubling efforts on this front & should not miss window under Biden-Rouhani.https://t.co/v7Jm69PhnD
— Ellie Geranmayeh (@EllieGeranmayeh) January 5, 2021
Even though the decision to enrich to 20 percent will heighten the suspicions of some countries that Iran’s nuclear programme has a hidden military objective, Tehran has always denied this.
The new level is well below the 90 percent which would be needed for use in a weapon.
“While the jump in nuclear enrichment levels is worrisome, there could have been far more provocatory steps on the nuclear and regional fronts from Iran,” says Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations, calling the latest move a “managed escalatory step”.
The decision on enrichment “is a response to mounting pressure from the Trump administration and its regional allies,” Geranmayeh told AFP, adding it also needed to be seen in the context of calls for “revenge” from Iranian hardliners after two high-profile assassinations.
In early 2020, the powerful commander Qasem Soleimani was killed by a US drone strike in Iraq, while in late November high-ranking nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was also assassinated, a killing Tehran has blamed on Israel.
What other deal limits have been breached?
In 2019, Iran had begun to accumulate more than the 300 kilogrammes of enriched uranium in compound form the JCPOA set as a stockpile limit.
The most recent IAEA report showed Iran has now accumulated more than 12 times that amount.
Also in 2019, Iran began enriching uranium at its underground Fordo site, which was prohibited under the deal.
In early 2020, Iran announced that it no longer considered itself bound by the deal’s limit of 5,060 centrifuges.
It is now using more than 6,400, some of which are more advanced models than allowed under the accord.
The fear of some other states is these steps will significantly slash the so-called “breakout time” needed to gather the fissile material necessary for a weapon.
How crucial are the coming weeks?
According to Naysan Rafati of the International Crisis Group, the rise in tensions in recent days shows how much events have placed “both the JCPOA and regional tensions on a knife edge”.
Hopes for saving the deal rest on the shoulders of Trump’s Democratic successor Joe Biden — assuming tensions don’t worsen before Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
#Iran starts process for 20% enrichment
-Mandated by law after #Fakhrizadeh assassination
-Marks #Soleimani’s assassination anniv.
-Strong signal to #Biden/E3 cont. max pressure sanctions has consequences
-Iran can reverse this step like most others taken since Trump #JCPOA exit https://t.co/krBgyaI8GV
— Ellie Geranmayeh (@EllieGeranmayeh) January 4, 2021
Iran’s “latest move is a signal from Tehran to both Biden and European capitals that Iran will not just sit on its hands,” according to Geranmayeh.
Some in Iran are seeking to impose “a sense of urgency” to resolving the issue, she says, particularly “given the major impact of US sanctions and the economic fallout from the Covid crisis, in addition to looming presidential elections in Iran”.
Will the deal have to be renegotiated?
“It need not be necessary to start all over on a new deal,” says Rafati.
“Both the Biden team and the Iranians can use the agreement that already exists as the initial basis for defusing the situation,” he adds.
But over the longer term it will be difficult to avoid broaching other thorny issues.
Last month, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his country favoured a “form of ‘nuclear agreement plus'” which would address Iran’s missile programme and broader regional activities.
“Iran’s top leaders have also rejected the notion of renegotiating the JCPOA, but have not shut the door to broader diplomacy once the nuclear deal is stabilised,” says Geranmayeh.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk