Iran is straining at nuclear deal leash

Since December, there have been reports that Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi had announced that Iran was designing a modern process to enrich uranium up to 20% for an ageing research reactor. Salehi had reportedly said Iran was ready to enrich uranium to 20% at its Fordow nuclear facility. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal, Iran is eligible to enrich uranium only up to 3.7% for 15 years. Salehi has raised concerns by stating that Iran “would do enrichment at any volume and level.”

The United States had called off the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and demanded a fresh deal. However, in September 2018, Salehi clearly stated, “if we have to go back and withdraw from the nuclear deal, we certainly do not go back to where we were before. We will be standing on a much, much higher position.” Iran, he said, was capable of designing nuclear reactors to suit its own needs and the new fuel would enhance their efficiency. That same month, Ayatollah Khamenei had reportedly ordered the setting up of an advanced hall of modern centrifuges.

A year earlier, in August 2017, Salehi had declared that Iran could start enriching uranium to 20% within five days of a decision to do so. In June 2018, Iran was reported to have launched the UF-6 (uranium hexafluoride) production facility, a step towards increasing uranium enrichment capability.

Possessing the ability to enrich uranium to 20% would also open ways for Iran to enrich uranium to even higher levels, to weapons grade. One of the pressing issues post the Iran nuclear deal has been Tehran’s continued missile development programmeme. Iran already possesses sophisticated ballistic and cruise missiles of long ranges that are capable of delivering nuclear warheads as well as chemical and biological warheads and sub-munitions.

Allowing Tehran to enrich uranium to 20% would result in the country furthering the capability to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has in fact warned that it will develop a nuclear arsenal if the deal with the P5+1 powers fell apart. If it did, it would set of a nuclear arms race in West Asia and North Africa region.

Strategic repercussions

Saudi Arabia desires to possess nuclear technology, ostensibly for civilian purposes, but refuses to accept the US ‘gold standard’ of restricting enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. Hence, a nuclear deal with the US has not come through. In addition, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Egypt, too, could become high-risk nuclear power states.

The UAE accepts the US ‘gold standard’ — the 123 Agreement — and refrains from enriching uranium but it has always been sceptical of the nuclear deal that allowed Iran to enrich uranium to 3.7%.

The UAE’s Ambassador to Washington had once even stated that the Emirates no longer felt bound by the 123 Agreement which was a bilateral agreement between the United States and UAE.

Enriching uranium to 20% will be against the nuclear deal and in the future, the United States might find it difficult to persuade other states in the region to enter into similar nuclear deals should states in West Asia go nuclear. These include states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others.

Though Iran has stated that it has no desire to “withdraw from the deal”, any attempt to increase enrichment capacity will automatically lead to the nuclear deal becoming null and void.

Also, Iran in June 2018 had warned that should European countries fail to abide by the nuclear deal, Iran would resort to the 20% enrichment process. Hence, these declarations about the enrichment programmeme could be a way for Iran to coerce Europe to stick to the nuclear deal.

The uranium enrichment programme will only make Iran’s nuclear energy programme more complicated as there may not be any future scope to discuss improving the nuclear deal. In addition, Iran will be supported in its nuclear energy programme by countries like China and Russia, which makes Iran bother less about the US moving away from the nuclear deal since despite these actions by US President Donald Trump, Iran would most likely go ahead with the uranium enrichment programme.

Though Iran is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has the right to pursue a nuclear energy programme, its ability to enrich uranium to 20% may in future lead to a stage where it enriches uranium that is weapons grade. Not only this, Iran also has close ties with Hezbollah- an asymmetric warfare organisation.

Iran already transfers weapons and missile systems to Hezbollah and hence, it is feared, in the future, it could also transfer nuclear weapons or technological know-how to Hezbollah.

Iran’s nuclear programme, if not checked, will only move ahead to become a full-fledged nuclear weapons programme.

(The writer is a Defence and Strategic Analyst)

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