A year ago, the United States increased sanctions on Iran's oil exports as part of its exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. Since then, the White House has continued to increase sanctions pressure to force Iran to change its regional behavior. In response, Iran adopted an aggressive strategy to raise the cost of the U.S. sanctions campaign, targeting oil exports and facilities of Washington's closest Middle Eastern allies and incrementally increasing the development of its nuclear program.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced Nov. 5 that beginning on Nov. 6, Iran would begin injecting uranium gas into 1,044 centrifuges at the country's underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant in a further move away from the limits set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal. Rouhani characterized this move, like the previous three steps Iran has taken to exceed the limits on nuclear development it committed to under the nuclear deal, as reversible. From here, Iran has set another 60-day deadline for Europe to act to ease sanctions pressure, warning that it could choose to take another step away from the deal after it passes in early January. It appears likely to do so unless, in Rouhani's words, Iran receives economic relief in the form of eased financial and energy sanctions. France, which remains a signatory of the JCPOA, condemned Iran's actions but added it would wait until the next assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) before deciding a course of action.
Why It Matters
By increasing its uranium enrichment activities, Iran is making a deliberate, calculated move to retaliate against increasingly tough sanctions. Moves like this risk drawing European powers concerned about proliferation closer to the U.S. position on Iran, and open a greater risk of Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. Fordow, which is hardened against attack, is an especially sensitive location — more so than the Natanz nuclear facility — because it's more difficult for international observers to access or monitor. Injecting uranium gas into its advanced centrifuges will allow Iran to more quickly build up a stockpile of enriched uranium. This fits Tehran's established pattern of the past year of building its capacity to more quickly enrich uranium without actually taking steps to refine its uranium supply to a higher enrichment level. The Iranians are also seeking to put into operation advanced generation centrifuges that could allow them to significantly reduce the breakout time to refine enough highly enriched uranium to produce a weapon.
As Iran takes its campaign further, the European Union and the other remaining parties in the JCPOA will be forced to make tough decisions on a strategy that limits the risk of Iranian proliferation.
Beginning in July, Iran has increased the purity of its enriched uranium to 4.5 percent, topping the JCPOA limit of 3.67 percent, a violation that its European partners have tolerated in an effort to keep the nuclear deal from rupturing. But Iran is running out of space to escalate its provocations without crossing a line that would draw heavier sanctions. This means as it takes its campaign further, the European Union and the other remaining parties in the JCPOA will be forced to make tough decisions on a strategy that limits the risk of Iranian proliferation.
The Strategic Context
Iran began moving away from its JCPOA commitments in May, a year after the United States walked away from the nuclear deal and imposed heavy economic and oil sanctions against Iran in a bid to push for heavier restrictions against the Islamic republic. In response, Iran has begun gradually returning to the types of nuclear development activities it had given up under the JCPOA in a bid for easing sanctions as well as to build leverage for potential future negotiations with Washington.
In late October, the board of governors of the IAEA, which is charged with inspecting Iran's nuclear facilities to certify its compliance with the deal, named Rafael Grossi to lead the watchdog agency. Grossi had promised to take a harder line on Iranian nuclear activities than his predecessor, a pledge that helped him win U.S. backing for his candidacy. There has been some speculation that Iran would block IAEA inspectors from entering its nuclear facilities, but Rouhani affirmed on Nov. 4 that they would still be allowed. However, as Iran looks for ways it can step further away from the JCPOA as another 60-day deadline nears, its stance on those inspections will bear monitoring.