What happened: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Benny Gantz have warned that Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons.
- Both Israeli leaders issued the warnings after Iran told the IAEA nuclear watchdog on Monday that it has begun enriching uranium up to 20 per cent purity at its nuclear facilities in Natanz and Fordow.
- Yesterday the Head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization added that the Islamic Republic is in the process of installing 1,000 new IR-2 (second generation) centrifuges, which will speed up the production of 120kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium per year.
- Iranian forces also seized a South Korea-flagged ship on Monday, according to the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars. The IRGC claimed the vessel was escorted into Iranian waters due to pollution but reports have suggested the reason for the seizure was because of South Korea’s refusal to unlock frozen oil-revenue accounts.
- Yesterday the US announced new sanctions on 17 companies and one individual in connection with Iran’s metals industry. The US Treasury said the Iranian regime uses revenue from its metals sector to fund the regime’s destabilising activities around the world.
- Prime Minister Netanyahu says Iran’s move to enrich uranium to 20 per cent purity in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal “cannot be explained in any way, other than a desire to continue realising its goal of developing a military nuclear programme. Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons.”
- During a visit yesterday to the navy’s reconnaissance unit, Defence Minister Gantz said: “We know that Iran is still igniting the region with instability, choosing to increase its uranium enrichment to 20 per cent. Iran is a global and regional challenge and we are keeping our eyes open. We all need to join hands in fighting Iran, the regional terror it sponsors, and the threat of its military nuclear armament.”
- At yesterday’s Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Saudi Arabia, where the leaders agreed to end the boycott of Qatar, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said: “We must make joint efforts to deal with the threat of the Iranian nuclear programme, its ballistic missile programme and its terrorist activities and those of its envoys in the region aimed at undermining stability and security.”
Context: In December the Iranian parliament passed a new law that requires the government to start enriching uranium up to 20 per cent purity within two months – higher than the current 4.5 per cent and in violation of the 3.67 per cent level permitted under the JCPOA nuclear agreement.
- The move is a major step towards producing weapons-grade material as the jump from 20 per cent purity to the 90 per cent required for an nuclear bomb is quicker than the work needed to enrich uranium up to 4.5 per cent.
- The new law also requires the Atomic Energy Organization to install around 100 IR-6 (sixth generation) centrifuges within a few months, which is reportedly slated for Fordow, followed by the installation of 1000 IR-6’s over a year.
- According to the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), Iran has the capacity to produce 15-20kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium per month, which would take Iran about 10-13 months to produce enough near 20 percent enriched uranium for a bomb. After Iran installs 100 IR-6 centrifuges at Fordow, it could double the monthly rate of 20 per cent uranium to 30-40kg per month, meaning Iran would need between 5-7 months to produce enough uranium for a nuclear bomb. With enough 20 per cent enriched uranium for a bomb, the breakout timeline would reduce to as short as one and a half months.
- Amos Yadlin, former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, said the new Iranian step is the most significant violation of the JCPOA nuclear deal yet. He believes Iran timed the decision to make sure President Trump would not have enough time to respond before the Biden administration is inaugurated.
- Yadlin argues that the Biden administration should leverage the “maximum pressure” accumulated by the Trump team in order to close the loopholes of the JCPOA by drafting a new and improved agreement and pressuring Iran to accept its terms.
- In Yediot Ahronot, Alex Fishman says, “The Iranians aren’t fools. They aren’t going to attack American targets so as not to give Trump a pretext for attacking. They have already begun to anticipate the Persian bazaar [i.e., the haggling negotiations] that they are going to conduct with Biden’s group of people, the very same group that was party to and was committed to Obama’s nuclear agreement. That is why they have begun to add phony issues, such as enriching uranium to 20 per cent. They can subsequently concede those phony issues in exchange for things that are truly important to them.”
Looking ahead: The Iran nuclear programme is one of the first foreign policy issues that the Biden administration will need to address.
- Iran’s latest violation is part of its strategy to increase the cost of the US’s “maximum pressure” campaign after Trump left the JCPOA nuclear agreement in May 2018.
- Iran could take further steps to increase its bargaining leverage against the incoming Biden administration. One step would be to halt implementation of the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows the IAEA unrestricted access to Iran’s nuclear facilities.