If any more proof was needed that the controversial deal regarding Iran’s nuclear programme was no longer viable, Tehran’s announcement that it is to enrich uranium to 20 per cent means that, in effect, the agreement has reached the end of its problematic existence.
Iran’s move to intensify the uranium enrichment process is not the first time it has been in violation of the agreement. Having previously announced last year that it was resuming its uranium activities in response to US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement, it has committed further breaches of the deal by activating advanced centrifuges, the sophisticated machines used in the enrichment process, as well as expanding its storage facilities at Natanz.
But while all these activities have drawn criticism from the western powers involved in negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal – namely, the US, Britain, France and Germany – the decision to begin enriching uranium to 20 per cent takes Iran’s violation of the agreement to an entirely new, and potentially more alarming, level.
Apart from the fact that this level of enrichment far exceeds the 3.67 per cent concentration of fissile material permitted under the terms of the agreement, it is also only a relatively short, technical step from the 90 per cent level required for the weapons-grade uranium needed for producing nuclear weapons.The Iranian regime has consistently denied that it has any ambitions to develop its own nuclear arsenal, even though US intelligence officials have concluded that Tehran was actively working on such a programme until 2003.
Indeed, sceptics of Iran’s decision to sign up to the deal have long suspected that the real reason it agreed to a freeze on its nuclear activities in 2015 is that it gave its scientists breathing space to improve their technical capabilities, as Iran’s previous attempts to enrich uranium had found only limited success.
Certainly, the speed with which the regime has been able to reconstitute its nuclear activities once Tehran indicated last year that it would no longer comply with the terms of the agreement has increased suspicions.
Moreover, the decision to move to 20 per cent enrichment at a plant near the village of Fordow, situated on the outskirts of the holy city of Qom, significantly surpasses Iran’s previous breaches of its international nuclear obligations. The plant was kept a secret from the world until 2009, and the latest decision is likely to cause a further escalation in tensions between Iran and the outside world.
Previously, Iranian defiance in the nuclear sphere over the re-imposition of US economic sanctions had been limited to provocative acts, such as building new underground bunkers at the Natanz enrichment facility and installing more sophisticated centrifuges.
While these actions represented violations of the agreement, they were not considered serious enough for other signatories of the deal to deem it null and void.
But with Tehran determined to raise its nuclear activities to such an unprecedented level, there will be serious concerns that Iran’s conduct now makes salvaging the deal impossible.
Iran’s announcement about the increase in its enrichment activities comes against a background of soaring tensions in the Gulf, as Tehran marked the first anniversary of the Trump administration’s assassination of Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful military official at the time. Following intelligence reports that Iran was preparing to mark the anniversary of Suleimani’s death by carrying out attacks against US interests, Washington has deployed military assets to the region, including B-52 strategic bombers as well as the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.
Iran responded earlier this week by seizing a South Korean-flagged tanker recently departed from a Saudi Arabian port.
The new level of enrichment far exceeds the 3.67 per cent permitted under the JCPOA
The latest surge in aggressive Iranian behaviour will be seen as an attempt to put pressure on US President-elect Joe Biden, who has indicated he is prepared to rejoin the nuclear deal so long as Iran returns to full compliance and commits to further negotiations.
But if Tehran believes it can bully Mr Biden into returning to the negotiating table, it will need to think again, judging by the US State Department’s uncompromising response to Iran’s enhanced enrichment activities.
“Iran enriching uranium to 20 per cent at Fordow is a clear attempt to increase its campaign of nuclear extortion – an attempt that will continue to fail,” commented a State Department spokesperson.
Iran’s defiant behaviour has also prompted an angry response from Europe, where EU foreign affairs spokesperson Peter Stano said that Iran’s enrichment move constituted “a considerable departure from Iran’s commitments under the nuclear deal with serious nuclear non-proliferation implications”.
The intensified enrichment activities certainly place the European signatories to the JCPOA (Britain, France and Germany) in a quandary, as it means their efforts to persuade Tehran to remain committed to the agreement have come to nothing.
Ever since Mr Trump announced his withdrawal from the deal, European leaders have been trying – without success – to create a trading mechanism, referred to by the EU as a “special purpose vehicle”. The mechanism was designed with the intention of enabling businesses to continue trading with Tehran without attracting US sanctions.
Their failure to improve Iran’s economic lot, however, has only succeeded in stiffening Iran’s resolve to adopt a more confrontational attitude with the outside world.
Consequently, with Tehran’s latest announcement concerning its uranium enrichment plans, even European leaders will now be forced to concede that the nuclear deal no longer has any validity as far as curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are concerned.
Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National