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Iran: On JCPOA Anniversary, Negotiations Stall and Rouhani Warns Of 90 Percent Enrichment

Wednesday marked “the anniversary of the Iran nuclear deal”. Six rounds of talks in Vienna to revive the JCPOA have already passed, but there has been little sign of progress toward resolution of outstanding issues, and Rob Malley, the US special envoy for Iran acknowledged that the process seems to have hit a wall, telling CNN that it is unclear when Iran will be “ready to go back.” Other sources have stated that a seventh round of the Vienna talks will most likely take place in late September or early October, putting a much larger gap between the sixth and seventh than between any previous two successive rounds. 

The Iranian regime has continued to escalate its nuclear provocations throughout the course of the Vienna talks, and the Rouhani administration has seemingly made a concerted effort to promote the transition to a more hardline administration. Perhaps the clearest example of this came on Wednesday when Rouhani himself boasted to state media about the potential for the Iranian regime to begin enriching uranium to 90 percent fissile purity – a level sufficient for use in a nuclear warhead. 

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Prior to adoption of the JCPOA, Iran had achieved 20 percent enrichment, putting itself only a fairly short technical step away from weapons-grade uranium, according to experts. Although the JCPOA mandated the liquidation of higher-enriched stockpiles and ostensibly limited further enrichment to 3.67 percent, critics of the agreement questioned the strength of the enforcement regime and the longevity of the restrictions. The underlying concerns were reinforced after the US pulled out in 2018 and Iranian nuclear facilities proved capable of restoring their prior levels of enrichment much more quickly than anticipated by the deal’s advocates. 

Early in 2021, the problem was compounded by Iranian regime’s announcement that it would begin enriching some uranium to the 60-percent level, further shortening the technical step needed for weapons-grade. This advancement was also arguably achieved more quickly than should have been possible if prior restrictions had had their promised effect of lengthening Iran’s nuclear “breakout” period to well over a year. In its latest report on the status of the JCPOA, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that Iran had accumulated more than 2.4 kg of 60-percent enriched uranium, as well as a similar amount of uranium metal, a substance with little to no use other than as a key component in the core of a nuclear weapon. 

Of course, Tehran has always denied intending to obtain such a weapon, even as with each successive development, it becomes more apparent that the regime is threatening its foreign adversaries with the possibility of a breakout. At times, regime officials’ public statements on the topic come precariously close to acknowledging their true intentions, as when Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said that a fatwa by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei “forbids the production of nuclear weapons, but if [Western powers] push Iran in those directions, it is not Iran’s fault. Those who pushed Iran in that direction will be to blame.” 

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On Wednesday, the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani used more delicate language in order to convey a more explicit threat, stating that Iran “can do anything in the peaceful path,” including enrich uranium to 90 percent purity. Although this level is explicitly and exclusively needed for use in a nuclear weapon, Rouhani attempted to suggest that it might one day be necessary for a reactor. In that case, he added, “we do not have any problem and we are able.” 

Nuclear power generation is a thin excuse for such threats, and Rouhani’s words are sure to fuel criticism of Western strategies for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. Much of this sort of criticism was already delivered to a broad international audience on Sunday, when many speeches on the second day of the Free Iran World Summit focused attention on Iran’s nuclear threats and the perceived deficiencies in the American and European response. 

The NCRI’s president-elect, Maryam Rajavi, delivered a keynote address on each of the events three days. On Sunday she stated that the region’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had “linked his and his regime’s fate to the nuclear program” and that “Khamenei is building a bomb and will not stop.” She also advised that in dealing with that threat, Western policymakers should understand that “the mullahs only understand the language of firmness and strength.” 

“Western countries’ interactions with the mullahs’ regime have fed a vicious cycle of deception and appeasement,” Mrs. Rajavi said of the talks leading to the JCPOA’s initial implementation and its potential revival. “That is to say, while the regime has been hiding its nuclear program by deceiving the world, the international community has been trying to stop or curb this project by granting concessions or by showing complacency.” 

In light of recent developments including Rouhani’s commentary regarding 90-percent enrichment, one might even argue that the regime is barely even hiding its nuclear program anymore. Meanwhile, its position in the Vienna talks remains unchanged, and the next round has apparently been pushed back, giving the regime additional time to pursue further nuclear advancements while also continuing other malign activities. 

The Free Iran World Summit served in part to highlight the continuity of these issues, with Mrs. Rajavi declaring that any future agreement with the mullahs should not only “completely close down the regime’s bomb-making, enrichment and nuclear facilities,” but also “oblige the clerical regime to withdraw the Revolutionary Guard Corps from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Lebanon” and “to stop torturing and executing Iranians.”