On March 8th, 2021, Iran began enriching uranium with a third set of advanced IR-2m centrifuges at its undercover Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz, according to reports from Reuters. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported this violation of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers, which included the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) initiated by President Obama that authorized relief for Iran’s financial sanctions in return for restraint from nuclear weapon production.
However, Iran began breaching the 2015 deal after President Trump resigned from the agreement and reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018. As Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States, the responsibility to limit Iran’s nuclear activities falls on current President Joe Biden, who has indicated his intention to reinstate the accord; however, Washington and Tehran both believe the other should make the first move. The deal permits uranium enrichment only with first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz, but Iran started enriching there with the far more efficient IR-2m machines in November.
A recent report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog clarified that On 7 March 2021, the Agency verified at FEP that “Iran had begun feeding natural UF6 into the third cascade of 174 IR-2m centrifuges,” per reports from Reuters.
The IAEA also warns that fourth and fifth cascades of the IR-2m centrifuges are already underway, and installation of a sixth cascade may begin soon. These IR-2m centrifuges at the FEP are enriching uranium up to 5% fissile purity, which is over the 3.67% purity limit specified in the nuclear deal. At another nuclear facility, Fordow, Iran is enriching up to 20% fissile purity. Uranium must reach 90% purity to be made into a nuclear weapon.
Tensions between the United States and Iran is heightening as the nuclear deal face-off persists. When CBS News questioned President Biden on whether he would lift sanctions to convince Iran to reestablish the nuclear accord, he responded with a clear “No.” In February, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “there is an opportunity to try a new approach, but the current window is fleeting” and labelled American withdrawal from the deal as a “dismal failure to live up to their commitments.” Zarif insists that Washington must act first to return to compliance, arguing in a Twitter post that President Biden has a choice to “break with Trump’s failed policies, or build on his failures.”
Iran and the United States must communicate peacefully to mitigate any growing international friction. No form of nuclear weapon production promotes peaceful interaction between nations, and Iran’s atomic manufacturing at FEP and other facilities is only expanding.
The 2015 JCPOA prohibits uranium metal production for fifteen years. Yet, the IAEA confirmed in a recent February 23rd report that Iran began production earlier in February. After President Trump abandoned the deal, Iran informed the U.N. watchdog on January 12th, 2019, of its plans to pursue uranium metal production in the coming months.
While it is not believed that Iranian scientists were able to manufacture uranium metal prior to the JCPOA, they have now obtained permanent knowledge of production that can be applied to atomic weapon development. Iran has been working to manufacture centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium, at several locations. On December 2nd, 2020, it alerted the IAEA of intent to install three cascades of 174 IR-2m centrifuges, and the third cascade’s production has just been confirmed. Though Iran has been in communication with the IAEA, they have curbed nuclear inspections drastically, another breach of the JCPOA.
However, arguably the most significant violation of the agreement thus far has been Iran’s uranium enrichment at 20% purity, which the Wall Street Journal labelled as a move that “crossed a red line previously set by European powers.” Naysan Rafati, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, commented that 20% enrichment “definitely underscores the important of reversing Iran’s (nuclear accord) breaches and defusing a non-proliferation crisis that’s slowly built up since 2019.”
As uranium metal is the core component of nuclear weapons, even small scale uranium production can be dangerous. Iran insists that they will not manufacture atomic weapons, but “the disclosure (of uranium enrichment) suggests Iran wants to keep its options open,” says the Wall Street Journal.
It is unclear which avenues of diplomacy Tehran and Washington will pursue. Iran may seek leverage in the JCPOA by offering to end uranium metal enrichment, or international groups may crackdown on Iran for breaches of the deal. While the international standstill remains, no progress toward peace can be made. Renegotiation of the 2015 nuclear accord is a pressing conflict that requires attention from both parties.
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