Amidst the controversy surrounding Iranian nuclear chief's statement on uranium enrichment breakthroughs, speculation surrounds Iran's next steps. Will Iran withdraw or violate its nuclear agreement?
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iranian nuclear programme, made waves in an announcement last Sunday detailing the steps taken by scientists to design a modernised method for reaching 20 percent enriched uranium.
In an interview with an Iranian state news agency, Salehi stated that Iranian scientists are "on the verge" of this breakthrough, adding that “modern fuel” would be used in the Tehran research reactor, which utilises 20 percent enriched uranium.
"Right now, designing a reactor has become very possible for our scientists," said Saleh.
Dr Mohammad Marandi, an Iranian-American academic and political analyst, told TRT World that the international controversy regarding the announcement was misplaced however.
“This is not a violation of any nuclear agreement at this stage because Iran is not enriching uranium past 20 percent. The announcement specifically details that a more modern method for enriching uranium is being developed,” he said.
Enriching uranium at 20 percent is well above the requirement for nuclear energy production. Nuclear weapons, however, require 80 to 90 percent enriched uranium.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal signed by Iran and world powers, Tehran agreed to scale down its nuclear enrichment, and give up its goal of developing nuclear grade uranium, a short step from producing working nuclear weapons.
As a result, international sanctions against Iran were removed, allowing it to continue selling oil and gas to the world market, both key commodities for its economy.
But in May 2018, President Donald Trump ended the United States’ nuclear agreement with Iran, going on to reimpose US sanctions on the country in August and November.
In spite of the controversy generated by Salehi’s remarks, UN nuclear inspectors have not raised any alarms over violations of the deal.
Foreshadowing the future?
Ali Kashiri, an independent Iranian political analyst, commented that the statement on Sunday does not necessarily constitute a desire by Iran to take serious action, and there is little possibility that it could withdraw from the deal.
"Iranian officials have long emphasised that they can bring their nuclear programme to full capacity, if the deal is violated. But if they didn’t withdraw when Trump pulled out of the deal, I see little incentive for Tehran to violate whatever agreement it has with the remaining partners in the agreement,” Kashiri told TRT World.
Previously, however, Salehi has stated that Iran only needs a small period of time to resume previous levels of uranium enrichment if the nuclear agreement is ended.
In August 2017, Salehi stated: "If we make the determination, we are able to resume 20 percent enrichment in five days.”
However, Kasheri added: "If they do withdraw, they would have few reasons to justify it now. If anything, this constitutes one of their periodic reminders that they are in fact not pressured to oblige with the nuclear agreement, and retain their full sovereignty and readiness posture in reaction to Pompeo’s threats.”
Kashiri warns however, that Iran is subject to internal pressure regarding the deal.
“Pompeo’s statement only justifies critics of the JCPOA [the nuclear deal] and hardliners such as the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard]. Moreover, it also brings together moderates and hardliners in the interest of national security.”
Recently, the United States has ratcheted up its pressure on Iran, most recently in a speech given by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who promised to counter Iran in the region.
Iran had hoped to restore its economy after the deal, long since kept in check by heavy sanctions. Following Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, Iran’s currency value has dropped significantly, it also faces higher inflation and a difficult job market.
Hassan Imran, an independent geopolitical analyst based in Istanbul, believes that Salehi’s statement is a “serious warning that leaves room for evasion in the case of geopolitical escalation”.
"There is no current benefit to Iran ending its nuclear agreement, and particularly now, given that so far Pompeo has only engaged in anti-Iranian rhetoric. This may not hold true in the future,” Imran told TRT World.
For now, it seems Iran will continue to abide by the deal, so long as it reaps continued benefits. With an intensified aggressive posture taken up by the US State Department, it seems increasingly unlikely that both sides can see past their differences and find common ground.