Iran nuclear move aims to restore balance

January 5, 2021 - 21:46

TEHRAN – Iran has embarked on a new nuclear policy aimed to restore the balance of rights and obligations in a nuclear deal that has long been implemented one-sidedly by Iran. The policy is aimed at persuading the European signatories to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – France, Germany and the UK (E3) - that their poor track record in implementing their commitments under the deal is no longer acceptable to Iran.

After years of strategic patience in the face of U.S. sanctions, Iran has ultimately moved to change the nuclear status quo by substantially raising the level of uranium enrichment up to 20%, an unprecedented development since the nuclear deal – officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – was signed in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1, which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council –Russia, China, France, the UK and the U.S. – plus Germany.

“A few minutes ago, the process of producing enriched uranium to 20% purity has begun. And the first product of UF6 enriched uranium will be produced in a few hours,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei announced on Monday morning, putting an end to a recent wave of speculation over how soon Iran will make the most significant nuclear move.

Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it will start enriching uranium to 20% before it started the process of producing UF6 enriched uranium. And the UN nuclear watchdog confirmed in a statement that it was informed by Iran of the country’s intent to start enriching up to 20%.

“Iran has informed the Agency that in order to comply with a legal act recently passed by the country’s parliament, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran intends to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) up to 20 percent at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant,” the IAEA has said in a statement.

Later on Monday, the IAEA issued a statement confirming Iran’s nuclear move. “Iran today began feeding uranium already enriched up to 4.1 percent U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment up to 20 percent,” the statement said.

Tehran pressed ahead with its plan to resume 20% uranium enrichment and even produced its first UF6 product a few hours after it announced the resumption of uranium enrichment at 20 percent in the Fordow nuclear site.

“Considering the previous experience of enrichment at the Fordow facility, the new production line for enriching uranium up to 20 percent was prepared very quickly,” Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said on Monday evening.

Iran made the nuclear move after years of pursuing talks with the Europeans to convince them that if they really want to maintain the JCPOA, there is no other way than normalizing economic ties with Iran as envisioned by the JCPOA.

Up to Tuesday, the European signatories to the JCPOA had refrained from reacting to the Iranian move. The only European reaction came from the European Commission.  

An unknown spokesman for the Commission said on Tuesday the European body regretted that Iran has resumed 20% uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility but believed that the accord was worth saving, according to a Reuters report.

“We are highly concerned by the measures taken by Iran. This action is in breach of Iran’s nuclear commitments and will have serious implications,” the spokesman pointed out. “It is regrettable but it is also highly important and ... that we maintain the agreement,” he said.

As of this writing, the E3 have refrained to react to Iran’s move to raise the level of uranium enrichment, despite the fact that some observers and officials in Iran believe that the resumption of the 20% uranium enrichment may have well been indented to push the Europeans into changing their approach in dealing with Iran.

The E3 usually issue statements on Iran whenever it makes any significant nuclear moves. And sometimes they even issue statements on Iran’s internal affairs. For instance, they issued a joint statement in early December after Iran’s Parliament passed a law requiring the government of Hassan Rouhani to increase nuclear activities in a few months if the remaining parties to the JCPOA failed to uphold their obligations under the deal.

The nuclear law, officially called “Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions and Protect Nation’s Rights,” outlines a step-by-step strategy for Iran to force the West into reconsidering its sanctions policy against Iran by increasing nuclear activities. It stipulates that the Iranian government should take certain nuclear measures such as raising the level of uranium enrichment to 20% and suspending the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in few months if the Western parties failed to honor their obligations.

Back in December, the E3 told Iran not to implement this law if it wants to preserve what they called “a space for diplomacy” that was created after Joe Biden won the U.S. presidential election in November.

“If Iran is serious about preserving a space for diplomacy, it must not implement these steps. Such a move would jeopardize our shared efforts to preserve the JCPOA and risks compromising the important opportunity for a return to diplomacy with the incoming US Administration. A return to the JCPOA would also be beneficial for Iran,” the joint statement of the E3 said.

Iran did not heed the E3 warning and implemented part of that law on Monday. The nuclear law was basically designed to send a message to the E3, not the U.S., according to Abbas Golrou, a member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.

In a mid-December interview with the Asr-e Iran news website, Golrou said that the nuclear law was designed to send a message to the P4+1, especially the Europeans.

“Our talking point in this law has something to do with the Europeans’ commitments,” Golrou pointed out.

But the E3 has refused to react to Iran’s nuclear move, which was basically made in accordance with the nuclear law. They are probably assessing the situation around the JCPOA. They may even issue a threatening statement, which is pretty possible, given their recent hawkish positions on Iran. But pundits and some Iranian officials believe that the Europeans have no right to denounce the Iranian move.

“I do not think Europeans have the right to talk about this,” Seyed Abbas Araghchi, the deputy foreign minister of Iran, said in an interview with Iran’s state TV on Monday night, adding that the Europeans’ non-compliance with the JCPOA was fully a deviation from their JCPOA commitments.

Araghchi was responding to a spokesman for the European Union who accused Iran of deviating from its JCPOA after it raised the uranium enrichment level, according to a Fars News report.

“The Europeans should be grateful to Iran for preserving the JCPOA up until now even though it did not enjoy a sanctions relief in the past few years,” the deputy foreign minister said.

Iran has tried to make the Europeans realize that the era to implement the JCPOA one-sidedly is over and that the Europeans need to get the message before it is too late. In fact, if the Europeans keep dragging their feet on implementing their commitment, Iran may raise the level of uranium enrichment to even higher percentages.

Kamalvandi said on Tuesday that Iran is capable of enriching uranium to 60% purity and installing more advanced centrifuges such as IR2M, IR4 and IR6. According to Kamalvandi, Iran is currently using IR1 centrifuges to enrich uranium to 20%. Also on Tuesday, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced that Tehran is currently working to install 1,000 IR2m centrifuges. Salehi also said that Iran has installed at least two cascades of this type of centrifuges, both of which total more than 320 IR2m centrifuges.

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