An international nuclear watchdog agency said that Iran is preparing to ramp up uranium enrichment to pre-nuclear deal levels in what would be the country’s latest violation of the 2015 agreement.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran plans to substantially increase enrichment levels at its underground Fordow nuclear site, which was prohibited from enriching uranium under the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an international agreement often known as the Iran nuclear deal, which saw Iran limit its nuclear program in exchange for the relaxation of sanctions.
Iran resumed enrichment activities at Fordow in November 2019, following President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to tear up the nuclear deal, but at a relatively low level, only about 4.5 percent. The IAEA says that Iran is now targeting enrichment levels of up to 20 percent, though there is no known timeline in place for that change.
Previously, the Iran nuclear deal limited Iran to 3.67 percent enrichment, according to Reuters. To achieve weapons-grade uranium, Iran would have to increase enrichment to 90 percent; but, according to the New York Times’s Eric Schmitt, if Iran were to begin enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, “it requires relatively little further enrichment to get to the 90 percent purity that is traditionally used for bomb-grade fuel.”
Iran has repeatedly said it does not want to develop nuclear weapons, and instead wants to advance its nuclear program for peaceful, scientific purposes. Adversaries such as the United States and Israel, however, have signaled they believe otherwise.
The new 20 percent enrichment target was set by Iran’s parliament last month in response to the assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Fakhrizadeh was killed near Tehran on November 27, 2020, in an ambush that Iran has blamed on Israel. And the same new law that mandates 20 percent enrichment also raises the imminent specter of international nuclear inspectors being expelled from the country: According to the New York Times, Iran has set “a two-month deadline for oil and banking sanctions against Iran to be lifted before inspectors are barred.” Currently, the IAEA says it has “inspectors present in Iran on a 24/7 basis and they have regular access to Fordow.”
Iran has been taking steps toward regaining pre-nuclear deal capacity and potentially toward achieving a nuclear weapon. In November 2020, Iran began operating advanced centrifuges at another underground nuclear facility, Natanz, and its nuclear stockpile stood at more than 12 times the limit imposed by the JCPOA.
US President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office on January 20, has indicated that he hopes to rejoin and revive the JCPOA, which was negotiated while he was serving as vice president to President Barack Obama. Some observers see Iran’s enrichment efforts as a way of building negotiating leverage, but it remains to be seen whether recent strides in Iran’s nuclear program could complicate things. “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” Biden wrote in a September op-ed. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”
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