Iran increasing enrichment capacity at underground Natanz

What happened: Iran has intensified its breach of the JCPOA nuclear deal by increasing its enrichment of uranium at its underground Natanz plant.

  • According to a confidential report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has begun enriching uranium with a second cascade of IR-2 centrifuges.
  • The JCPOA permits Iran to enrich uranium with first-generation IR-1 centrifuges. However, last December Iran told the IAEA that it had begun enriching uranium with the more efficient IR-2 centrifuges and that it would install three more IR-2 cascades.
  • “Iran has completed the installation of one of these three cascades, containing 174 IR-2m centrifuges, and, on 30 January 2021, Iran began feeding the cascade with UF6 [uranium hexafluoride feedstock],” the IAEA said in the report obtained by Reuters on Tuesday.
  • Iran’s envoy to the IAEA tweeted: “Thanks to our diligent nuclear scientists, two cascades of 348 IR2m centrifuges with almost 4 times the capacity of IR1 are now running… successfully in Natanz. Installation of 2 cascades of IR-6 centrifuges has also been started in Fordo. There’s more to come soon.”
  • The pace of uranium enrichment is vital to Iran’s nuclear breakout capacity – the time needed for Iran to acquire enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. The IR-6 is 10 times faster than the IR-1 at enriching uranium.
  • On Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Iran was currently months away from being able to produce enough material to build a nuclear weapon. He further warned that timeframe could be reduced to “a matter of weeks” if Tehran further violates restrictions it agreed to under the JCPOA.
  • Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz on Tuesday gave a less alarmist view when he told Israeli media that Iran was a year or two away from producing a nuclear bomb. “If they do everything to break out in terms of enrichment, it will be half a year [to produce the needed materials]; in terms of nuclear weapons, they are a year or two away.”

Context: Iran is ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to end US sanctions that were introduced in the Trump years.

  • Foreign Affairs article by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on 22 January laid out his government’s conditions for returning to JCPOA compliance: The US lifts its sanctions first; no discussions on a new and upgraded agreement, and no dialogue on Iran’s missile programme and regional conduct with non-regional actors.
  • On Monday, however, Zarif suggested the EU coordinate Washington’s return to the nuclear deal in an interview with CNN International. “You know clearly there can be a mechanism to basically either synchronize it, or coordinate what can be done,” he said.
  • Zarif also warned that Iran will end its implementation of the Additional Protocol (AP) to its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA in late February if its demands for sanctions relief have not been met. A suspension of the AP would be highly concerning insofar as it would reduce IAEA inspectors’ access to Iranian nuclear facilities and make it much harder to identify illicit nuclear activity.
  • According to US-based think-tank IISS, recent high resolution satellite imagery shows that Iran is rapidly building a new centrifuge assembly facility at Natanz.
  • The underground facility is a particular concern for Western countries as it is protected by a thick layer of concrete and mountain rock.
  • Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said yesterday that Israel may have to decide whether to launch such a strike alone or come to terms with a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic. “The United States will never attack the nuclear facilities in Iran, Israel must decide whether it will accept a nuclear Iran. Israel will be forced to act independently to remove this danger,” Hanegbi told Israeli media.
  • Steinitz’s assessment is the same as the IDF. Last October, the outgoing head of Military Intelligence told Yediot Ahronot from the moment of a breakout decision, Iran will be two years away from a bomb.
  • Last week, the IDF Chief of Staff gave a rare speech in which he advocated for the US not to return to the JCPOA, contradicting stated policy by the Biden administration.
Looking ahead: US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said yesterday that the Biden team will consult with allies and partners before reaching the point of engaging with the Iranians.
  • One of the concerns in Israel and the Gulf is that the Biden administration will lift sanctions before negotiating with Iran on a new agreement that further extends restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme, as well as its ballistic missile and regional activity.
  • Next week Israel’s security cabinet is set to hold its first meeting in several months to discuss Iran’s continued nuclear violations and how to respond if the Biden administration lifts the sanctions currently imposed on Iran and re-enters the JCPOA agreement. Prime Minister Netanyahu is then expected to travel to the UAE and Bahrain to coordinate a unified stance to the Biden team.

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