Iran has begun the process of enriching uranium with a purity of 20 percent under the supervision of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors at the Fordow nuclear facility near Qom.
Experts say that 20 percent enrichment can facilitate the process of producing an atomic bomb.
The European Union has called the move a serious breach of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal reached by Iran and six countries in 2015. Countries including China, Japan, and Russia have also responded with objections.
This is not the first time Iran has enriched uranium by 20 percent, but it comes at a critical time for Iran’s international relations and its financial stability. What are the consequences?
Iran’s decision to begin producing uranium enriched by 20 percent at the Fordow site violates the Islamic Republic's commitments under the JCPOA nuclear deal, and it is also likely to have serious consequences for relations between Iran and its JCPOA's partners.
Iran's goal seems to be to gain the upper hand over the United States, which withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, at the same time imposing tough unilateral sanctions. In the days leading up to Joe Biden being inaugurated as the new US president, there has been ample discussion about whether the US might return to the deal with its own specific goal of limiting Iran’s missile program.
Twenty percent uranium enrichment has been the subject of opposition and concern because it shortens the path to producing nuclear weapons, making it easier for Iran to do so. The Islamic Republic first started the process of enriching uranium with this level of purity in February 2009. Under increasing international pressure, Iran invited the leaders of Turkey and Brazil to Tehran and signed an agreement with them to send its lower-enriched uranium to Turkey and receive 120 Kg of 20 percent enriched uranium in return, to be used as fuel for the research atomic reactor in Tehran.
The agreement did not gain approval from the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council).
In early 2010, Security Council Resolution 1929 was passed, with 12 votes in favor and two votes, from Brazil and Turkey, against. The resolution banned the Islamic Republic's ballistic missile activities and called for a halt to enrichment, including 20 percent purification of uranium. It reads:
Iran shall not acquire an interest in any commercial activity in another State involving uranium mining, production or use of nuclear materials and technology as listed in the UN approved export control list, in particular uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities...
The resolution also ordered a strict inspection regime of any aircraft or ship originating from Iran.
Resolution 1929 became the basis for international sanctions on Iran imposed by the United States, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and Australia. The sanctions targeted Iranian oil exports and financial and banking transactions, specifically related to the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic, and put severe financial pressure on the ruling regime in Iran. This eventually led to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei agreeing to secret talks with the United States in Oman with the aim of lifting the sanctions.
Finally, talks between Iran and the United States and five other major powers, namely France, China, Russia, Britain and Germany (also known as the P5+1 group, since it was the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) began in December 2013. Approximately four years after the start of the 20 percent enrichment process, the Islamic Republic agreed to halt this level of enrichment and was allowed to have access to some of its blocked assets in international banks; it was agreed that the P5+1 would not impose new sanctions on Iran until a comprehensive nuclear deal was reached.
With the JCPOA agreed in the summer of 2015, the Islamic Republic was allowed to only enrich low-purity uranium and, instead of being forced to close the Fordow nuclear facility, it had to convert it into an enrichment research and development center with the cooperation of the EU. Iran had built the facility as a backup for the Natanz underground uranium enrichment plant, so that in the event of a military attack on Natanz, a sample of uranium enrichment machines and accessories would be ready to be re-engaged.
Both the production of 20 percent uranium enrichment and other uranium enrichment at Fordow facilities were stopped in accordance with Iran's commitments as set out in the JCPOA. But as the Islamic Republic approaches the fifth anniversary of the JCPOA's implementation, it has completely abandoned this part of its commitments in a bid to create a bargaining chip to use against the incoming US president Joe Biden. Biden has backed a return to the JCPOA in theory, but some of his key supporters and members of his new administration have stated the goal should be to "restrain Iran," including its missile program.
The Islamic Republic has declared its missile program as its "red line" and is likely to offer the United States a halt to its 20 percent uranium enrichment instead of negotiating about its ballistic missiles. But the continuation of this process could quickly result in an international alliance against the Islamic Republic, to which even China could be a part. China has expressed dissatisfaction with Iran’s decision regarding 20 percent uranium enrichment, and the JCPOA’s European partners have said it would jeopardize the life of the nuclear deal.
At present, with regard to the JCPOA, only the International Atomic Energy Agency's monitoring facilities to oversee the activities of Iran remain in place.
With its recent decision, the Islamic Republic has presented a new risk, for itself and for the world. There is no doubt that a new round of conflict over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and uranium enrichment has already got underway, with two possible outcomes: the United States returning to the agreement and lifting the current sanctions, or the escalation of tensions and the resumption of EU sanctions, and even sanctions from Security Council member states, against Iran.