Nuclear power

Implications of Iran moving away from restrictions on uranium enrichment

Nuclear power AFP Photo

Following the killing of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran has decided to no longer “limit” itself to the requirement of the nuclear deal that demanded it curtail its uranium enrichment. 

The deal was implemented in 2016 under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This means the nuclear enrichment process will now continue, and probably with those modern and technically advanced centrifuges banned under the nuclear deal. Amid this, Iran assures it remains committed to the provisions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which likely means nuclear weapons are not on its agenda at the moment. 

The JCPOA was an excellent way to check Iran’s journey toward nuclear weapons. It is under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Revue Conference (RevCon), to achieve a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) free zone in the Middle East, and the nuclear deal was the perfect way to achieve this. It was well known that should Tehran develop nuclear weapons, many other Middle Eastern countries as well as North African nations like Egypt could follow suit. Many could argue that Israel possesses nuclear bombs, however, if so, they remain hidden in the basement. Should Iran go the nuclear way, Israel too could change its posture to that of “ready deterrence.”

Iran already has nuclear capable missiles and, in the past, enriched uranium up to 20 percent. Weapons grade uranium requires enrichment up to 90 percent, which may not be difficult for Tehran, given the modern and advanced centrifuges it now operates. The JCPOA restricted its enrichment capacity up to 3.7 percent, making it difficult for weapons grade enrichment. 

Iran has in the past expressed its discontent over the European countries’ inability to meet its demands to protect it from sanctions, post the US walking out of the nuclear deal and imposing unilateral sanctions. 

Iran has been moving toward an enhanced capacity of uranium enrichment, and the US killing of Soleimani is the perfect reason to pursue its desired enrichment capability. In November 2019, reports surfaced Tehran had resumed uranium enrichment at its Fordow facility, and also started to inject the UF-6 (uranium hexafluoride) into Fordow centrifuges. The Fordow facility was a concern during the nuclear impasse as it was capable of continuing the nuclear weapons program. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also claimed: “when they [the European Union] uphold their commitments we will cut off [the] gas again… so it is possible to reverse this step.” 

In November 2019, the IAEA reported that Iran’s low enriched uranium went up to 372.3 kilograms, while the nuclear deal limited the stockpile to 202.8 kilograms.

One of the reasons for Iran’s march toward a holistic nuclear energy program could be 

 to draw the  attention of the European countries - Britain, France and Germany (E3). The E3, on the other hand, seeks a “dispute mechanism” to ensure Tehran curbs its nuclear program. Under this dispute resolution process, if one party of the JCPOA (except the US, which walked away from the nuclear deal) felt that the other party had not upheld the provisions of the deal, it could take the help of a joint commission with members from Iran, Russia, China, and the E3. This could play into the hands of Tehran, which has complained of “racism” among the E3 against it, and also unsatisfied for not meeting expectations on financial dividends, according to Iran post JCPOA. 

Iran is probably sure of one thing, that even in the dispute resolution mechanism, if the issue remains unresolved then in the last phase of the mechanism, which would decide whether to continue with the United Nations sanctions relief, the phase would require all the parties of the nuclear deal, including Russia and China, to not pass a veto. Should that happen, the E3 could lose face - a situation it does not want.

So far, E3 has been responsible and mature in tackling the nuclear deal issue, despite the US backing out. It must take this mechanism as a platform to comprehend in a holistic way the nuances of the dispute resolution mechanism. One of Iran’s reasons to stray from the nuclear deal is to get E3 to the table to discuss its expectations. It only remains to be seen how much E3 is ready to leverage. 

Debalina Ghoshal is a Non Resident Fellow, Council on International Policy Asia Pacific Fellow, EastWest Institute

Debalina Ghoshal is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear, missile and missile defense-related issues.

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