Iran announced last week that it would be taking steps toward producing uranium metal, in direct violation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement.
The revelation came only days after Tehran resumed enriching uranium to 20 percent purity at the underground Fordo facility. According to the JCPOA, Iran can enrich uranium only up to 3.67% until 2030.
Iran’s deliberate breaches of the agreement have rightly caused decision-makers in Israel and the six world powers known as the P5+1 to take notice. “The production of uranium metal has potentially grave military implications,” said the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, the so-called E3, in a joint statement. “Iran and — I say this clearly — is in the process of acquiring nuclear [weapons] capacity,” added France’s Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian on Saturday.
But although the latest breaches advance Iran’s nuclear program, they are not an indication that Iran intends to exit the JCPOA or move toward a nuclear weapon, analysts believe. At least, not for now.
‘Not a nothing-burger’
On January 10, officials from the IAEA conducted an inspection at the Fuel Plate Manufacturing Plant in Esfahan, Iran, the nuclear watchdog agency told The Times of Israel. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told member states three days later that Iranian officials had informed the agency that Tehran planned to begin construction of an assembly line for uranium metal production.
“Modification and installation of the relevant equipment for the mentioned R&D activities have been already started,” Iran told the IAEA in a January 13 letter.
The Iranian decision is a clear violation of the JCPOA. “For 15 years, Iran will not engage in producing or acquiring plutonium or uranium metals or their alloys, “ reads Annex I of the agreement, “or conducting R&D on plutonium or uranium (or their alloys) metallurgy, or casting, forming, or machining plutonium or uranium metal.”
However, producing uranium metal does not violate the terms of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which Iran signed in 1970.
Experts acknowledge the difficulty in determining how alarmed regional and world powers should be about the latest Iranian move. “There is a legitimate civilian use” for uranium metal, Jeffrey Lewis, nonproliferation scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told The Times of Israel.
Uranium must be in a gaseous state in order to be enriched, which increases the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope to levels necessary to produce nuclear fuel. The gas is pumped into centrifuges, which separate the desired U-235 from the heavier U-238. The uranium gas must then be converted into a solid in order to be used as nuclear fuel in both civilian reactors and nuclear weapons.
Still, Lewis emphasized, the Iranian announcement is “not a nothing-burger.”
“It’s a thorny issue, it’s the kind of thing that they have… a legitimate reason to do it; on the other hand, it is the kind of thing we would prefer they not do.”
Potential civilian uses for uranium metal include metal rods in nuclear reactors. However, most reactors use other types of solids for their fuel, emphasized Joab Rosenberg, former deputy head analyst in the Israel Defense Force’s Military Intelligence Directorate.
For that reason, said Rosenberg, producing uranium metal is “one of the most indicative moves” that a country is working toward nuclear weapons capability.
Regardless of the intended use of the uranium metal project, there is no question that Tehran is violating the JCPOA. The timing has to do with the change of administration in the United States, according to Rosenberg.
“They want to put Biden under pressure, and to give him as many excuses as possible to go back into the agreement quickly,” said Rosenberg. “The more they push away from the treaty, the more it will make sense for the French and the Russians and the Germans to push Biden to go back before it’s too late.”
Calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” US President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018, reimposing crippling sanctions on Iran.
Since the Trump administration left the deal, Iran has been slowly breaching its terms. Tehran has since exceeded limits on its low-enriched uranium stockpiles, enriched uranium beyond the permitted 3.67%, and conducted prohibited R&D activities.
US President-elect Joe Biden has promised to re-enter the JCPOA. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal,” wrote then-candidate Biden in September, “the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”
On Saturday, Biden announced that the lead US negotiator for the 2015 nuclear deal, Wendy Sherman, would serve as his deputy secretary of state.
Raz Zimmt, Iran specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, also sees the Iranian moves as an attempt to pressure the Biden administration to move forward quickly in talks with Iran on ending sanctions and re-entering the JCPOA.
“The Iranians are trying to gain as much leverage as possible in advance of what appears to be a return to negotiations,” said Zimmt.
Lewis agrees that gaining leverage in future talks with the Biden administration is one factor in Iran’s calculations. But he believes that Tehran is also trying to make as much progress as it can in its nuclear program before the US re-enters the agreement.
“Obviously the Iranians are politically in a pretty good spot where they can do a bunch of stuff that we prefer them not to do,” Lewis said. “If you want to do stuff, this is the window.”
The domestic angle
Political developments within Iran also played a role in the increasing violations of the JCPOA, Zimmt argued.
Days after senior Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in November 2020 — widely believed to be the work of Israeli intelligence — the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, passed legislation requiring the government to ratchet up uranium enrichment and limit the access it gives to inspectors by early February.
Though President Hassan Rouhani has criticized the law and parliamentary interference in foreign policy, it appears that his government is abiding by it for now.
Upcoming presidential elections in June loom over the nuclear debate in Iran.
The current Iranian government’s primary goal is to get sanctions removed by returning to JCPOA compliance, but it does have two red lines. It refuses to return to full compliance as long as the US continues sanctions, and it won’t revisit the terms of the agreement under these circumstances.
In the meantime, some experts argue, Iran is being allowed to make advances in its nuclear program that the P5+1 wanted to delay for another decade.
“We are getting 2030 in 2020,” lamented Rosenberg.
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