Pushing back against US sanctions and European inaction on trade, Iran is stepping up its uranium enrichment. How far will Tehran go to apply pressure on the West, and how will the Europeans respond?
The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran Deal) set a uranium enrichment cap of 3.67 percent. Tehran sailed past the cap on Monday, with a spokesman for the country’s nuclear agency announcing it had reached 4.5 percent, and would consider upping enrichment to 20 percent. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors confirmed the news later on Monday.
In addition, the Islamic Republic broke its 300kg low-enriched uranium stockpile limit less than a week ago.
While easily reversed, Iran maintains that these steps are “remedial,” and permitted by the 2015 agreement. Tehran wants the European parties to the deal to honor their trade commitments with Iran and deal in Iranian oil – a violation of American sanctions.
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What can Iran do with 20 percent enriched uranium?
An enrichment level of 4.5 percent “completely satisfies the power plant fuel requirements of the country,” nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said on Monday. Previously, Iran’s only nuclear power plant at Bushehr was running on imported Russian fuel, enriched to a level of five percent.
A 20 percent enrichment level is still a considerable step below the 90 percent needed to make a nuclear weapon, but progression to weapons-grade uranium is not linear, Middle East expert Paul Heroux told RT. Once 20 percent is reached, he said, “you’re already mostly there.”
However, no country sets out to make just one nuclear weapon, former head of verification and security policy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Tariq Rauf told RT. Producing more than one weapon would entail putting old centrifuges back into action, and could take several years. For the moment, Iran is simply “sending signals that it can up the ante,” Rauf said.
Iran currently operates around 5,000 “primitive” centrifuges, Rauf explained. Before the JCOPA came into effect, that number was closer to 20,000.