The ongoing game of brinkmanship between Tehran and Washington has entered a new, potentially dangerous level, with Iran restarting uranium enrichment at its Fordo nuclear facility and also announcing it was raising the level of this enrichment, up to five percent.
These two decisions represent a distinctly shocking and provocative move by the Islamic Republic, but they also remain easily reversible, experts say, as Iran attempts to bully its way toward financial relief while keeping just shy of prompting European countries to call for a so-called snapback of broader international sanctions.
The transformation of the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant, which is buried deep under a mountain in Iran’s Qom district, from a uranium enrichment facility to one used for other, non-nuclear purposes was a key provision of the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The heavily fortified Fordo was originally built and operated in secret by Iran, until it was exposed by Western intelligence services, including Israel’s, and ultimately acknowledged by Tehran in 2009 to great international criticism. The facility is widely regarded as having been built for the explicit purpose of producing highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons far enough underground that it couldn’t be destroyed in a military strike.
Since the 2015 agreement was signed, Fordo’s 1,044 centrifuges have been spinning empty. Iran’s decision to begin pumping uranium hexafluoride gas into those centrifuges on Wednesday sent a clear message that it was moving farther away from the JCPOA. However, according to a number of experts, the reactivation of Fordo will have only a modest effect on the amount of time it takes for Iran to “break out” — to develop an atomic weapon and officially become a nuclear power.
“It doesn’t significantly affect the breakout timeline, but Fordo has always been one of the most sensitive aspects of the nuclear program because of its hardened, underground nature and the difficulty of destroying it,” said Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel and current fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies think tank.
“The danger is that this is one important, symbolic step that will be followed by more,” Shapiro told The Times of Israel on Tuesday night.
Under the JCPOA, Iran was permitted to enrich uranium up to 3.67%, a level that is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below the weapons-grade level of 90%. Prior to the atomic deal, Iran enriched up to 20%. Beginning this summer, the Islamic Republic began enriching uranium up to 4.5%, and also started accumulating more low-enriched uranium than was allowed under the deal — 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, compared to the JCPOA limit of 300 kilograms (661 pounds).
According to recent estimates from the Institute for Science and International Security, which is generally seen as hawkish on Iranian issues, if Tehran decided to completely abandon the JCPOA and go at full speed toward the production of an atomic weapon using its existing stores of low-enriched uranium, it would take between seven and 11 months for it to develop sufficient weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb, depending on which types of centrifuges it used in the process.
Andrea Stricker, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, which is also seen as hawkish on Iran, told The Times of Israel that the resumption of uranium enrichment at Fordo with its 1,044 centrifuges, which are of a simpler and slower variety, potentially shortens this breakout time by several weeks.
It was not immediately clear how this timeline would change with Iran’s announcement that it would begin enriching uranium up to 5%.
Jason Brodsky, policy director for the bipartisan United Against a Nuclear Iran organization, said this should be seen as largely symbolic but highly provocative move, though one that is unlikely to significantly change the overall dynamic playing out between the United States and Iran.
“The Israelis are understandably very nervous,” he said.
Since last May, when US President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions against Iran, Washington and Tehran have been locked in an escalating stalemate. Every few months, the White House imposes additional sanctions on Iran, and the Islamic Republic retaliates by steadily increasing its violations of the nuclear deal and also taking ever more aggressive military actions in the Persian Gulf, most recently with the bombing of a major Saudi Arabian oil facility in mid-September.
“[The Iranians] feel, probably, that the steps taken to date haven’t moved the needle in attracting sanctions relief, so they need to get more hardcore, while still keeping it reversible,” Brodsky told The Times of Israel over the phone.
“They’re trying to do something, to be provocative enough to attract sanctions relief, but not too provocative to attract a military strike or a full snapback of sanctions,” he said.
Since last May, the US and Iran have maintained relatively consistent strategies in their standoff, with Washington employing a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign of regularly increased sanctions and bellicose rhetoric and Tehran responding with both violations of the terms of the JCPOA — surpassing limits on uranium quantities and enrichment levels — and shows of military force in the Persian Gulf, including shooting down an American drone and allegedly bombing a United Arab Emirates oil tanker with limpet mines.
So far the US has not retaliated militarily to any of Iran’s aggressive actions in the Middle East, something that deeply concerns Israel as it believes any American hesitancy and disengagement from the region emboldens Tehran.
“The US withdrew from the JCPOA and imposed maximum pressure. Iran is responding with aggression in the Gulf — to which the US hasn’t responded — and with creeping violations of the JCPOA, and with rejections of US and French offers to negotiate,” Shapiro said.
Brodsky agreed with this overall assessment of the dynamic.
“We are locked in this cycle,” he said.
In the middle of this brinkmanship between Iran and the US are the Europeans, who have been scrambling to keep the JCPOA alive.
After each violation of the accord by Tehran, members of the European Union — notably France and Germany — have faced the choice of stomaching the infraction or using the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanisms, under which fresh sanctions could be imposed on Iran. Use of this latter option by European countries would likely result in the complete abandonment of the JCPOA by Iran, according to many analysts’ assessments.
Europe should have activated dispute resolution mechanisms long before now to prevent these actions by Iran
With Iran’s latest moves on Wednesday, Europe will again have to decide how to respond.
Stricker said her group, which has long been critical of the JCPOA, believes the reactivation of a “formerly covert, heavily fortified facility that was once intended for weapons-grade uranium production,” on top of Iran’s prior violations of the accord, ought to prompt additional sanctions.
“Europe should have activated dispute resolution mechanisms long before now to prevent these actions by Iran,” she said.
“[The Iranians] don’t want to provoke snapbacks, but this is a pretty provocative action,” Stricker said.
Brodsky was more skeptical.
“[Fordo] is not Europe’s red line,” he said. “This is not likely to move the needle, from a European perspective.”
The UANI policy director said he believed Iran would have to significantly increase the level of enrichment before the Europeans would take action.
“I think 20% enrichment is their red line,” he said.
Shapiro, who was a significant supporter of the JCPOA, having served as US ambassador to Israel during its signing, was less inclined to speculate on what would prompt a European response.
“I don’t know what the trigger for Europe is to snap back sanctions,” he said. “They’re trying to find a way to preserve the structure of the deal.”
All eyes on 2020
This ongoing game of tit-for-tat between the US and Iran does seem to have a potential end date: November 3, 2020 — the American presidential elections.
For Iran, there is little incentive to enter negotiations with the current US administration until it knows if Trump is going to remain in office for an additional four years.
So for at least the next year, Tehran will likely maintain its strategy of provocative-but-not-too-provocative violations of the JCPOA, Brodsky said.
“Iran’s playing a long game here,” he said.
Shapiro added that European nations would also be inclined to wait until Americans decide who their next president will be before entering into serious negotiations to reach a long-term settlement.
“The Europeans are frustrated by the Trump approach,” he said.
Shapiro, who also served as senior director for the Middle East and North Africa on the US National Security Council, said the White House doesn’t appear to be making great strides to any kind of resolution with Iran.
“There is no sign that the Trump administration has an off-ramp to this escalatory cycle,” he said.
Brodsky agreed that there was no sign of a solution in the offing.
In the short term, he said, the US could end a waiver it currently has in place that allows Russian, Chinese and European companies to operate out of Fordo in light of this latest violation of the JCPOA. Next month, when it assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council, the US could also try to call for more sanctions.
But overall, the Iran-US brinkmanship is likely to continue as is, according to Brodsky. “We’re going to continue to be at a stalemate,” he said.
Unless, or until, one of the sides changes the equation — either deliberately or through a miscalculation.
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