Posted inGlobal Affairs

Iran on the cusp of weapons-grade uranium

Illustration by William Godfrey

Iran is between one and two years away from having the technological capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, according to new reports.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, otherwise known as the Iran Nuclear Deal) has been effectively defunct since the US withdrawal in May 2018 and Iranian defection a year later. Despite sanctions, the Iranians are pressing ahead with uranium enrichment forbidden under the JCPOA. Diplomats from all the signatories of the JCPOA have gathered recently in Vienna to try and negotiate a new agreement. However, Israeli intelligence shared with the US and the European signatories to JCPOAs – the UK, France and Germany, – is reported to show that Iran has now begun steps to enrich its uranium to 90% purity. There is no civilian use for 90% purity uranium – this would be weapons-grade. 

Iran is currently enriching limited quantities of uranium to 60% purity, which is not only significantly above the cap agreed in the JCPOA  – 300kg of 3.67% purity uranium – but is well above the 20% level that scared the US, Russia, China, and the E3 into negotiating the deal in the first place. The 3.67% level is perfectly sufficient for any and all civilian purposes, so any purity above this is an indication that the regime wishes to expand its nuclear programme beyond just energy.

Significant progress seemed to have been made by June 2021, but the Iranian Presidential elections that month forced a five-month adjournment, while the Iranian delegation returned to Tehran to be given their new negotiating position. 

The election replaced term-limited Hassan Rouhani, considered by many to be relatively moderate, with the hardline jurist Ebrahim Raisi, and this could have a significant impact on the future of the talks.

Rouhani was President in 2015, and was a key architect of the original deal, aiming to bring prosperity to Iran by lifting painful US sanctions, and rejecting the criticism of those foreign policy hardliners who saw it as an unacceptable agreement with Iran’s principal enemy. However, Raisi, who ran against Rouhani in the 2017 election, is likely to oppose a return to the original text, and instead press for more concessions. 

Indeed, a key commitment of Raisi’s campaign was to remove the sanctions that have crippled Iran. Perhaps part of the reason for such a long gap in the Vienna talks is an attempt by Iran to gain leverage that would allow them to achieve more beneficial terms. Iran certainly has a stronger negotiating position now: more advanced centrifuges have been installed since Raisi’s election; uranium has again begun to be enriched at the fortified underground site of Fordo, a policy explicitly banned under the JCPOA; the Raisi government has blocked inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency from monitoring several important facilities, a measure of the agreement it said it would adhere to even after the US’s withdrawal; the uranium stockpiles have been built up to 11 times what was allowed under the JCPOA; and a (defensive) missile test took place near the Natanz nuclear facility

All these moves are likely to provoke many of the negotiating parties, and might scare them into accepting Iran’s latest demands: the immediate and unconditional removal of all new sanctions imposed under the Trump administration, reparations from the US for pulling out of the original agreement, and a promise that it will not do so again, and a renegotiation of all that was discussed from April to June 2021.

Biden’s team has already declared it cannot meet those conditions- most obviously, they cannot guarantee the actions of future administrations, especially if Trump does decide to run for President in 2024. Talks are further complicated by Iran’s insistence that American negotiators are not present, and that they will only deal with Russia, China, and the E3, with the latter group keeping the Americans informed and indirectly speaking on their behalf. 

A further factor is the role of Israel in the negotiations. While they are not present themselves, as they were not part of the group that drew up the 2015 deal, they are both highly invested and involved in the process and outcome. As a key opponent of the Iranian regime, they were not satisfied with the original agreement, believing it to be too lenient, and not sufficiently critical of other Iranian actions in the region, such as its funding of Hezbollah

Israel was also involved in encouraging Trump to withdraw from the agreement in 2018, and is now urging its allies in America and Europe not to restore the terms of the JCPOA, Biden’s preferred option, but to push for more restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity, and if that fails, then to keep or extend the current programme of sanctions. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said “I call on every country negotiating with Iran in Vienna to take a strong line and make it clear… that they cannot enrich uranium and negotiate at the same time.”

The role of China is also interesting: as one of the signatories of the 2015 agreement the country is also negotiating in Vienna, and is probably equally as keen as the western powers to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, which have the potential to disrupt their foreign policy objectives in Central Asia. The Belt and Road Initiative, a programme of large-scale investment in infrastructure projects in strategically significant developing countries, relies on the maintenance of stability and peace in its core regions, especially where energy projects are being developed. Moreover, China has tried to remain a ‘neutral outsider’ in Middle Eastern rivalries, buying both Iranian and Saudi Arabian oil in large quantities, and conflict within the region exacerbated by Iranian nuclear development would hurt their long-term goals. 

It appears China needs Iran far less than vice versa. The latter, in an attempt to alleviate the economic squeeze caused by international sanctions, has greatly increased its economic cooperation with China in recent years. Most notably, Iranian oil sales to China have increased significantly. This keeps the oil sector profitable, preventing a collapse that would be economically catastrophic and may also have political ramifications.

These sales are against US sanctions, but the Biden administration has thus far chosen to keep them unenforced while talks are ongoing. However, the Sino-Iranian economic relationship is likely to be more than a short-term patch, as shown by the signing of a 25-year economic cooperation agreement. Indeed Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has labelled the relationship a ‘strategic partnership’. China might have to choose between its ambitions in Central Asia or confronting US interests in the Middle East alongside a nuclear-armed Iran.

With little prospect for a return to the 2015 agreement, and seemingly no room for an agreement on new terms anytime soon, the question then is: what are the alternatives to a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear capability?

If talks do indeed fail, this question will have to be settled within the next two years, as that is the estimated timeframe for Iran to make a nuclear weapon of their own. 

One option is the return of a full-throated programme of sanctions to maul the Iranian economy and force a return to the negotiating table on more favourable terms. The most likely possibility is targeting oil sales to China, a big buyer: petroleum products make up Iran’s largest area of exports, and China already buys 48% of all Iranian exports. This would be similar to the US’ threatened raft of sanctions on Russia to deter any aggression towards Ukraine, especially the possibility of excluding Russia from Swift, the international electronic finance system, which Iran is already barred from. Such sanctions may push Russia and Iran closer together and would increase the chances that either Russia or China try to derail the talks, or come down on Iran’s side.

However, it is far from assured that sanctions will be either effective or enough to broker another deal, and China may continue to find ways around unilateral sanctions, or block UN-sponsored programmes in the Security Council. Even if sanctions against Iran are as effective as those against Russia, such a command-based economy can adapt, if painfully, to survive in an environment of near-permanent sanctions. This also includes deepening diplomatic and economic relationships with other pariah states, or those who are willing to circumvent sanctions, such as Russia and China as discussed before.

The other option, though rarely openly discussed, is direct action to stop further development of the nuclear programme, and is possibly what Bennett meant when he urged the Western allies to “adopt a different toolkit” to deal with Iran.

Sabotage of Iranian nuclear programmes and facilities is one avenue, and Iran has already accused Israel of this in regard to the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020, although Israel’s government denied involvement in the attack. 

More seriously, however, the US has not yet ruled out military attacks as a possible Plan B and could use a mixture of airstrikes and drone strikes to damage or destroy key nuclear infrastructure, though some important sites such as Fordo are underground.  

This would not be novel, as in recent years the US has executed or planned military action against Iran on at least two occasions: the assassination of Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qasem Soleimani, and the selection of 52 targets (reflective of the 52 hostages taken during the American Embassy siege during a previous flashpoint in relations after the revolution of 1979) for strikes, should Iran retaliate against Americans, or American assets. While unrelated to the nuclear issue, it does provide precedent for military confrontation between the two countries. 

However, it should be noted that talks have not yet broken down, that the draft agreement from June has not been outright rejected by any participant, and that a deal to prevent Iran from reaching weapons-grade uranium or a nuclear weapon is still well within the realms of possibility. The continued presence of Iran at the negotiations is a sign that the current sanctions are deeply painful for the Iranian economy, and that even Raisi’s government is willing to offer some concessions to get rid of them, and these recent moves may in fact be born out of desperation by the Iranian regime.