Iranian President Hasan Rouhani declares that Iran will no longer honour the terms of its nuclear research and development programme, following previous violations of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran took a third step in ending compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, since the US violated the deal last year by withdrawing from it, and imposing severe sanctions against Iran in turn.
US sanctions against Iranian oil exports have sent its currency falling more than 50 percent in value.
This comes after Iran breached the imposed limits on its enriched uranium stockpile, later announcing that it had enriched uranium to 4.5 percent purity and could raise it to 20 percent. The nuclear agreement allows Iran to enrich uranium up to a purity of 3.67 percent.
On Thursday, September 5, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif conveyed a letter to the EU’s top foreign policy official, Federica Mogherini, stating that Iran had ended all its commitments “in the field of nuclear research and development, as of today [Thursday]".
Mark Jefferson, Analyst for Stratton Consulting Group, spoke to TRT World, on the recent developments.
“Iran is building up political leverage through an incremental, and studied application of growing risk, threat, and political pressure to win concessions or roll-backs of sanctions, and it may backfire on them, even if they carefully describe them as ‘reversible,'” says Jefferson.
“To be clear, though they warned that they would exceed the uranium enrichment limit of 3.6 percent, they’re only reminding us that they will take that action on September 6, nearly two months later. Meanwhile, they’re also threatening a third unspecified step. It’s sabre-rattling."
Chain of events
In July of this year, Iran exceeded the permitted 300-kilogramme limit on its enriched uranium stockpile, set down by the 2015 JCPOA nuclear agreement, giving rise to concerns that Iran could in a matter of months have enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb.
At the time, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif emphasised that the move was ‘reversible’, depending on whether the remaining five parties to the JCPOA could help Iran circumvent sanctions and save the deal which saw the United States’ withdrawal in May 2018.
Since then, Iran has felt the need to continue its political gambit, and finally make true on its July warnings to go back on other commitments it made as part of the JCPOA.
The United States has consistently expected adherence to the deal, while leveraging the same sanctions that the deal itself seeks to relieve.
On July 10, the US held an emergency session of the UN nuclear watchdog’s meeting to pressure Iran over its breaches of the nuclear agreement, but it yielded little to no concrete results.
European nations have mobilised since Iran’s warnings to end the agreement last July, but run afoul of US restrictions in their proposed solutions.
French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a $15 billion line of credit to Iran, which was quickly dismissed given still-active US sanctions that would target businesses interacting with Iran.
Enriched to weaponised
Iran’s previous announcement that it would enrich uranium past the JCPOA-approved 3.6 percent caused international consternation as worries grew that Iran would be able to build a nuclear bomb much more easily.
In early July, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said it may enrich uranium up to five percent for use in its Bushehr power plant, or even up to the 20 percent required for its modern research reactor.
Weapon-grade uranium requires at least 80-90 percent enrichment.
“First of all, if Iran actually sought to develop a nuclear bomb, they wouldn’t announce it,” said Mark Jefferson.
“More to the point, they’re nowhere near building a nuclear bomb, which still needs quite a few steps. This was a move to gather negotiating chips for the remaining adherents to the JCPOA.”
Iran needs nearly 1,050 kilogrammes of low-enriched uranium to make the core of one nuclear bomb, according to Joe Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund.
It would have to further enrich it to 90 percent percent purity, yielding 25 kilogrammes of ‘weapons-grade’ uranium.
Jefferson added: “There are other considerations too. Converting uranium into metal from gas, integrating it with an explosive warhead that could trigger a nuclear chain-reaction, and fitting it on a missile.”
Experts differ over how long this could actually take, with opinions ranging from months to a year.
Under the JCPOA, Iran is permitted to enrich uranium up to 3.67 percent, which is adequate for nuclear power plant use.
In mid-January 2019 however, Iranian nuclear scientists developed a more efficient method of enriching uranium to 20 percent, which would be used in modern nuclear reactors.
The more efficient nuclear reactor would yield higher energy outputs. Currently, Iran’s research reactor is the only one that could possibly make use of 20 percent enriched uranium.
Where’s the concern? Reaching 20 percent enriched uranium is actually much closer to weapons-grade uranium than the number seems.
To reach 20 percent from uranium's natural 0.7 percent concentration needs approximately 90 percent of the overall effort needed to create weapons-grade uranium. The remaining 70 percent needs significantly less effort.
Just being in a position to rapidly develop weapons-grade uranium is a bargaining chip for Iran, which is actively looking for a way out of crippling sanctions imposed by the United States.
Most agree that it’s only a matter of time before Iran eventually builds a nuclear device. The JCPOA treaty never tried to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear arms race, but rather to buy time before its ‘break-out’ in exchange for relief from sanctions.
Iran’s nuclear programme wasn’t entirely frozen, given that all aspects of the deal expire by 2031. This is a common theme of nuclear deals. In 1994, the Agreed Framework on nuclear arms between the US and North Korea set an expiry date as well.
What’s the ultimate goal? To ensure Iran becomes compliant with the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, of which it is a signatory, and to hope that in time a regime change would take place in Iran, or some combination of international and domestic events would bring Iran into alignment with US interests.
But would Iran build a nuclear bomb?
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated in June 2019 that Iran would never pursue a nuclear weapon, because Islam prevents them from doing so. The rationale is not a unique one among Islamic jurists, who forbid weapons of mass-destruction for their indiscriminate, inhumane and brutal nature, which Muslim scholars argue is against the guiding precepts of Islamic law, seeking to preserve life, property, lineage, intellect and religion.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran himself, issued a religious edict against weapons of mass destruction, drawing on a national aversion shaped by Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran in the ‘Whirlwind War’, killing 20,000 and injuring at least 100,000 others.
But would a nuclear bomb benefit Iran militarily? Likely not. Even if it develops a nuclear weapon, the Middle East would likely witness rapid nuclear proliferation, from Saudi Arabia to Israel.
One scenario remains in which a nuclear bomb would be justified: deterrence.
Hassan Imran, an independent geopolitical analyst told TRT World: “The most recent move by Iran leaves ample room for backtracking in case of escalation. Iran would only build a bomb in order to raise the stakes high enough to make the US think twice before ordering strikes on it. In much the same way, the recent announcements are designed to make the US pause and reflect.”
He added: "There is no current benefit to Iran ending its nuclear agreement. All the sanctions will remain, with no way out for Iran. But if pushed to it, Iran may not have a choice in the future.”
Iran announced that it would begin enriching uranium levels beyond the JCPOA approved 3.6 percent on July 7. So far, it claims to have enriched uranium to 4.5 percent.
While Iran’s move to enrich Uranium beyond the JCPOA approved 3.6 percent was largely symbolic, its most recent declaration to no longer honor the restrictions on its nuclear research and development program, may be irreversible.
With it comes the hope of relief from sanctions, or the possibility of even harsher ones in return.