By Alejo Vidal-Quadras
The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed on Tuesday that the Iranian regime dramatically expanded its stockpile of enriched uranium metal over the past several months. The production of that substance is a key element in the process of developing nuclear weapons, as European signatories to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal affirmed in response to Iran’s initial announcement that the relevant work had begun. Statements from Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union rejected the Iranian regime’s claim that the uranium metal was intended for civilian uses, of which there are effectively none. But the tone of those statements was obviously inadequate to make Tehran question its strategy, much less to halt uranium metal production.
A previous IAEA report indicated that Iran had enriched just 3.6 grams of uranium metal up to the 20 percent level as of February. Now, that stockpile has apparently grown to 200 grams, while stockpiles of raw enriched uranium have continued to grow as well. As of June, the quantity of uranium Iran had enriched to any level was more than 16 times the quantity permitted under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The seven-party nuclear deal also banned the country from exceeding 3.67 percent fissile purity, but Iran violated this restriction very soon after the US pulled out of the deal in 2018, then began systematically raising the upper limit of its enrichment.
The latest IAEA report notes that the Natanz nuclear facility is now running two cascades of advanced centrifuges in order to enrich uranium to the 60 percent level. One such cascade has already been running since last year and had reportedly produced at least 2.4 kg of the material by June. The following month, outgoing President Hassan Rouhani boasted on state media about the regime’s supposed capability of raising its enrichment ceiling even further, to the 90 percent enrichment that is considered sufficient for the production of a nuclear warhead. Experts say that this level is only a short technical step away from the 60 percent that Tehran has already achieved.
Rouhani said of 90 percent enrichment, “We do not have any problem and we are able,” though he attempted to frame this as a goal the regime would only pursue in the event that new forms of nuclear power generation began to utilize such highly enriched uranium. Publicly, the regime has long insisted that its nuclear activities are only intended for civilian use, but cracks have appeared in this narrative since long before the latest advancements drew criticism from experts for having no such use.
In February, then-Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi issued a statement in which he confirmed the falsity of common narratives used to defend the Iranian regime against accusations that it aspires to become a nuclear-armed state. Alavi cited a fatwa from the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei which supposedly bars Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons but then acknowledged that the regime could easily revoke or violated that edict if it chose to do so. If the regime were to achieve its nuclear breakout, he concluded, “those who pushed Iran in that direction would be to blame.”
The purpose of such remarks is plainly obvious. By blaming Western adversaries for Iran’s own behavior, they aim to blackmail the international community into providing the regime with vast concessions in hopes of buying its compliance with nuclear restrictions, rather than insisting upon those restrictions first and penalizing the regime when it fails to live up to them. Unfortunately, this strategy has proven somewhat effective in the past, with the JCPOA standing out as a prime example. In that case, Tehran won far-reaching relief from economic sanctions in exchange for the promise of limitations on its nuclear program which were largely self-enforced. Although much of that relief turned out to be short-lived when the Trump administration removed the US from the agreement, it nonetheless helped to solidify an expectation of impunity which is still guiding Tehran’s behaviour to this day.
At the same time that Iranian facilities have been raising their level of enrichment and producing uranium metal, the regime has been growing even less compliant with an international negotiating process that aims to restore the JCPOA. Six rounds of discussions on that topic have taken place in Vienna since February, with little progress. Now, plans for another round have been stalled amidst Iran’s presidential transition.
As Western powers chart a course of dealing with Raisi’s administration in the wake of Tehran’s latest nuclear violations, they will have to carefully consider whether there is any real value in trying to re-engage with a government that is most likely planning to expand its campaign of threats and attempted blackmail. If they decide to pursue negotiations and offer concessions in spite of the regime’s intransigence, they will certainly end up sending the message that its assumption of impunity is correct. Worse still, they will most likely give the impression that Tehran has been successful at terrorizing the international community with the thought of an imminent nuclear breakout.
It is common wisdom in international affairs that policymakers should not negotiate with terrorists. When one side of negotiation is intent on instilling fear, the other side gives up a tremendous amount of leverage simply by reaching out while under duress. When negotiating, a position of strength requires that one conclusively assert that strength first before entering into talks on their own terms. In the present situation, Western signatories to the JCPOA can do that by imposing severe penalties on the Iranian regime, in terms of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation for each successive escalation in its nuclear activities.
If the US, Britain or the European Union are going to adopt this sort of a strategy, they have a lot of catching up to do first. The Iranian regime has been riding roughshod over the JCPOA for two and a half years and far from penalizing it, the nations of Europe have remained openly committed to preserving sanctions relief, even going so far as to establish mechanisms intended to facilitate the evasion of US sanctions. The consequences of that strategy are plain to see and they put Iran significantly closer to a nuclear weapon than it has ever been before.
There is perhaps no better opportunity for a change in this strategy than the change of administration in Tehran. Since his inauguration on August 5, Raisi has reinforced his own hardline credentials by appointing cabinet ministers who include officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and persons who are under sanction or subject to Interpol warrants for their past involvement in terrorism and human rights abuses. It would be the most natural thing in the world for Western powers to take a more assertive stance in dealing with such a group of criminals. Yet there has been no sign of change so far. The Iranian regime’s opponents now have to wonder, what more will it take for the West to confront Tehran with appropriate strength?
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)