The news was announced on Tuesday, April 13 by Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs, who was in Vienna for the resumption of nuclear talks. Araghchi also said that besides replacing the damaged machinery, Iran would activate 1,000 advanced centrifuge machines with 50 percent greater capacity than existing ones.
For around 20 years now, the fortunes and fates of Iranians nationwide have been tied to uranium enrichment at Natanz nuclear facility. Once again, this site has become the center of attention.
Countries like Iran, which have safeguard agreements in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), must inform IAEA before they commence any new projects related to uranium and other radioactive material.
Iran notified the IAEA of its plan to enrich up to 60 percent on April 13, also telling the agency that it had started the cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Natanz. The IR-5 and IR-6 centrifuges allow uranium to be enriched more quickly and in far greater amounts than the Iran's first-generation devices, which are the only ones that the 2015 nuclear deal permits it to use.
The Islamic Republic has claimed that it is going to use the 60-percent purified uranium to make radiopharmaceuticals: medical drugs that contain radioactive isotopes.
For his part Rafael Grossi, Director-General of IAEA, is obliged report this development to the agency’s board of governors as soon as possible and also inform the United Nations Security Council in his next report to this organ.
This planned 60-percent uranium enrichment is the most important development in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in the past 12 years. This is the highest level of enrichment since the programme first got under way in Iran in the mid-2000s, which started at five percent and reached 20 percent near the end of the decade.
Twice before – first prior to the signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), and then again less than two months ago – Ayatollah Khamenei had said that the Islamic Republic will need 60-percent enriched uranium “in the coming years”. But in the end it has taken weeks, not years or even months, for this threat-cum-promise to be put into action.
Ship Fuel or Pharmaceuticals?
Iranian government officials have also said that the 60-percent enriched uranium was needed for ships that run on nuclear fuel. But since Iran has yet to deploy ship engines that require this, the Islamic Republic has shifted its justification to radiopharmaceuticals.
The US and France have both expressed “serious concern” about this development. Unlike enrichment to five or 20 percent, the 60-percent enrichment is an unprecedented development.
Enriched uranium is generally used for two purposes: for peaceful means, such as replacing fossil fuels, medical use and agriculture, and non-peaceful means, i.e. building nuclear weapons. The higher the enrichment level, the faster it is to build nuclear weapons.
The Islamic Republic claims its nuclear industry is focused on peaceful uses of uranium, though this claim is viewed with extreme scepticism because of Iran’s pervasive secrecy in previous years, failure to cooperate with IAEA and the discovery of samples that have the potential to be used in a military program.
Before it was revealed that the Islamic Republic was working in secret to develop its nuclear industry, Iranian officials often praised Pakistan’s nuclear program. Kamal Kharrazi, a former foreign minister and the current head of the Foreign Relations Strategic Council, who reports to Ayatollah Khamenei, called Pakistan’s nuclear bomb the “Islamic nuclear weapon”: one that, he said, could protect the Islamic world against Israel, although Pakistan’s bomb was intended as a response to India’s nuclear armory.
In the past two decades Iran has consistently responded to international pressure by expanding its nuclear program. For instance, when the Iran’s nuclear program was first referred to the Security Council, the five-percent enrichment activities that had formerly been a laboratory project were elevated to industrial production even though, at the time, Iran had no nuclear reactor in which to use it.
Iran launched 20-percent enrichment just after the US opposed selling this level of enriched uranium to the Islamic Republic for use at Tehran’s research reactor. And the expansion of new and more powerful centrifuges started on the anniversary of President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA.
The increase in the stockpile of five-percent enriched uranium began in early 2020, shortly after a US drone was used to assassinate General Ghasem Soleimani, then-commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force. The 20-percent enrichment started when Joe Biden won the presidential election and promised that the US would rejoin the JCPOA.
Strengthening Iran’s “Bargaining Power”
Now, with the suspected Israeli attack on the Natanz nuclear facility, the start of nuclear negotiations in Vienna and the possibility that US sanctions could be lifted, Iran has launched operations to enrich uranium to 60 percent purity.
By raising the level of enrichment, Iran is trying to force the international community to accept the development as a fait accompli or, as officials of the Islamic Republic put it, a “deterrent” that will strengthen their “bargaining power” vis-à-vis European countries and the United States.
This policy is similar to that of the North Korea, even though Pyongyang is more straightforwardly following the military route. Islamic Republic’s nuclear program is nominally peaceful, but if it is developed far enough it would need take a political decision to change its course.
The truth is that at some junctures, such as when the JCPOA first came into effect, the Islamic Republic succeeded in forcing the international community to accept its nuclear program in principle by expanding it. But this policy has also led to two decades of constant international pressure, various national and international sanctions, cyberattacks and a more suffocating security atmosphere inside the country. The immediate result has been a measurable shrinkage in the livelihoods of ordinary Iranians, whose welfare and quality of life have been undermined.
The first sanctions were imposed by the Security Council after Iran started enriching uranium to five percent purity. Then the Security Council imposed much heavier sanctions, which led to pervasive sanctions by the US and the European Union.
Even though the 5+1 group of countries, the US, the UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany, agreed on the enrichment of uranium to five percent, they did not agree with the 20-percent enrichment that could have made it considerably faster for Iran to develop weapons. The Islamic Republic was forced to stop doing it – until the Biden presidency started.
Now, in this tense situation, it unlikely that US or even European countries will agree to 60-percent enrichment in Iran.
The new decision by Tehran is another example of the “policy of nuclear responses” in the past two decades. If Iran loses its 60-percent enrichment gamble to “strengthen its bargaining power” there can be no doubt that the loss will have more severe consequences than losing the gambles over the five and 20 percent watermarks – because the international community views this as much more dangerous.
So, it appears that a new gift has issued forth from Natanz precisely at a time when verbal and cyber clashes between Iran and Islamic Republic were getting closer and closer to a direct confrontation.