Even 84% enrichment doesn’t make it any easier for Israel to move West on Iran

IAEA board meeting kicks can down the road, as US officials show up to take the pulse of Netanyahu government and his willingness to strike nuclear program

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A student looks at Iran's domestically built centrifuges in an exhibition of the country's nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
A student looks at Iran's domestically built centrifuges in an exhibition of the country's nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Top Israeli officials are zooming to capitals around the world to try to move the West closer to Jerusalem’s hawkish stance on Iran’s nuclear program.

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi met on Monday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington to discuss Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power and its threat to the region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is continuing his tour of European capitals, flying to Rome on Thursday and Berlin next weekend to try to push Europe to declare the talks on a return to the 2015 nuclear deal dead.

But their efforts to convince allies to change their stances on the issue are unlikely to bear fruit.

Iran has shown some recent signs of a greater willingness to cooperate with the international community over its nuclear program, and as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors convenes this week, it is not expected to pass any new resolutions censuring Iran.

This development is sure to disappoint Israel, as it comes after the discovery in February that Iran had enriched some uranium to almost 84% purity, just shy of the 90% needed for weapons-grade material.

In this photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, journalists take notes while visiting Fordo nuclear site near Qom, south of Tehran, Iran Saturday, November 9, 2019. On Saturday, Iran defended its decision to block a UN inspector from Natanz nuclear facility on October 28. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

A spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation hinted that the 84% was a localized mistake on its part, saying that “the presence of particles above 60% enrichment does not mean production with an enrichment above 60%.”

The IAEA is working to determine whether the enrichment was indeed “an unintended accumulation” within the network of pipes connecting the hundreds of fast-spinning centrifuges used to separate the isotopes.

“It’s technically possible, especially since Iran is constantly experimenting with how to enrich to higher purity with increasingly sophisticated centrifuges,” said Jon Ruhe, Director of Foreign Policy at The Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

“I can’t totally disqualify the possibility that they did something there in the centrifuges that caused them temporarily to enrich to a higher level,” concurred Raz Zimmt, Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, on screen, addresses the UN Security Council, Friday, March 4, 2022. The UN Security Council has scheduled an emergency open meeting on the attack on Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

He added: “It could be some games they are playing with the centrifuges to check the ability to reach higher levels.”

At the same time, Zimmt emphasized that it is hard to believe that Tehran had reached that level of enrichment by mistake.

Even if it was an intentional move by Tehran, in a way 84% isn’t cause for fresh alarm in and of itself. The major advance was to 60% enrichment, which Iran reached in the first half of 2021. From there, 90% is only a matter of Iran’s leadership deciding it wishes to enrich to weapons-grade material.

“But this points to the larger problem,” Ruhe explained, “that Iran is massively expanding its enrichment capacity and its knowledge for ultimately producing weapons-grade uranium on an industrial scale.”

Eli Levite, senior fellow in nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment and past deputy director general at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, argued that Iran is testing the international community.

“They’re checking the reaction,” he said.

A muted response

So far, the world’s reaction has been rather soft, which is sure to alarm Israel.

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi flew to Tehran on Friday to meet with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, where he infuriated Netanyahu by saying that any military attack on a nuclear facility was illegal.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses lawmakers while defending his next year’s budget bill at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, January 22, 2023. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Iran was also able to stave off any punitive action by the IAEA by allowing the watchdog to re-install surveillance cameras it had removed from three sites, agreeing to some stepped-up monitoring and committing to its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

For now, the nuclear issue will be kicked down the road, leaving Israel to make public threats and work even harder to try to move the dial in its direction.

Ruhe said he worries that the IAEA meeting this week “will be a public display of the West’s lack of consensus on what to do about the problem, and the West’s lack of any appetite to finally refer the matter to the UN Security Council and move toward snapback sanctions.”

Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Mohammad Eslami (R) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi hold a press conference in Tehran on March 4, 2023.(ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Though Israel’s ability to move its allies on the 2015 deal itself is extremely limited, Israel could create tension in the Iran-IAEA relationship, which exists independently from the deal, if its intelligence services are able to find more evidence that Tehran is deceiving inspectors.

Taking the pulse

The White House, meanwhile, wants to keep Netanyahu satisfied that a sufficiently threatening message about a credible military option is reaching the Islamic Republic, in order to keep the Israeli leader from pursuing that option himself.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset on February 27, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

In January, the Israel Defense Forces and the United States Central Command conducted their largest-ever joint exercise in Israel and the eastern Mediterranean Sea, involving some 6,400 US troops alongside more than 1,500 Israeli troops, and over 140 aircraft, 12 naval vessels, and artillery systems.

Israel’s Channel 12 news reported, without citing a source, that part of the drill included American bombers targeting a simulated Iranian nuclear facility.

Senior US defense officials are also making their way over to Israel to reassure it and send a deterrent message.

This handout photo from March 3, 2023, shows IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi (left), Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (second left) and other officials holding talks with visiting Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (back to camera) and his colleagues. (Sivan Shachor/GPO)

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, was in Israel on Friday for talks with senior security officials on Iran and other security issues. Milley met with his Israeli counterpart, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and other top security officials at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv.

Following Milley, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is slated to arrive in Israel on Wednesday for a two-day visit as part of an overall Mideast tour that also includes stops in Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.

Though the US embrace of Israel is itself an important message to Iran, it may have other motives beyond a show of solidarity.

“When you embrace someone, you can also take their pulse,” Levite pointed out.

As the months go by with no new nuclear deal on the horizon and no move to a Plan B, the Biden Administration needs to know that Netanyahu isn’t planning a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program. The parade of worrying statements from Netanyahu’s coalition allies on other issues has likely caused unease in Washington and a sense that it perhaps does not fully understand this government, increasing the urgency for senior US officials to get their own impression of what Jerusalem might do on Iran.

A CENTCOM HC-130J refuels an IAF Sikorsky CH-53 ‘Yasur’ helicopter over northern Israel, during the Juniper Oak 2023 drill, January 24, 2023. (CENTCOM)

Beyond his role as defense minister, Gallant, seen as one of the “responsible adults” in Netanyahu’s government, is a comfortable interlocutor for top Biden officials.

In the meantime, Iran remains at the point where it can quickly produce enough fissile material for multiple bombs, even though it would still have to develop a detonator and delivery system.

The country is likely to continue hovering just below the 90% threshold, keeping that milestone as a bargaining chip to dissuade Western nations from formally giving up on the negotiations and referring the nuclear issue to the UN Security Council.

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