What happened: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien in Jerusalem yesterday and they discussed the widening circle of peace in the region alongside the continued threat from Iran.
- Netanyahu related to the Abraham Accords that have brought about historic breakthroughs for normalising relations with four Arab countries: the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and since last week, with Morocco. Netanyahu said: “Both Israelis and Arabs praised President Trump when he pulled out of the failed Iran nuclear agreement, when he re-imposed and beefed-up tough sanctions on Iran, when he took out the Iranian arch terrorist, Qasem Soleimani. When Israelis and Arabs agree on so many things, it makes sense for the world to pay attention. After all, we live in this region. We know something about it.”
- Regarding the Iranian threat, Netanyahu said: “As long as Iran continues to subjugate and threaten its neighbours; as long as Iran continues calling for Israel’s destruction; as long as Iran continues to bankroll, equip and train terrorist organisations throughout the region and the world; and as long as Iran persists in its dangerous quest for nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them, we shouldn’t go back to business as usual with Iran. We should all unite to prevent this major threat to world peace.”
- Netanyahu added that “the Islamic Republic of Iran is still a nasty neighbourhood bully. But, if unchecked, tomorrow Iran will arm itself with nuclear tipped ICBMs [inter-continental ballistic missiles] that can target Europe and America and it will become a global bully, which will endanger everyone”.
Context: Concern over ‘business as usual’ could have been a reference to EU-Iran business forum that planned to host a virtual event with EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The event was suspended after four European countries (France, Germany, Italy and Austria) withdrew their ambassadors yesterday following the execution of an Iranian opposition journalist.
- Following the killing of chief Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s parliament and the powerful Guardian Council approved a law that will allow the government to dramatically increase its nuclear enrichment programme in contravention of the JCPOA nuclear agreement.
- The law requires Iran to enrich uranium up to 20 per cent purity, higher than the current 4.5 per cent and in violation of the 3.67 per cent level permitted under the agreement, if US sanctions are not eased in two months. A jump to 20 per cent would be a significant step toward weapons-grade uranium, which is defined as greater than 90 per cent purity.
- The new law also orders the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to complete the 40-megawatt reactor at Arak – which will accumulate one or two nuclear bombs’ worth of plutonium each year in its spent fuel – and design a second 40-megawatt heavy water reactor by early January 2021. The law also mandates that AEOI inaugurate a “metallic uranium factory” in Isfahan within 5 months. Iran had agreed under the JCPOA to a 15-year moratorium on uranium and plutonium metallurgy, which are important components to building a nuclear bomb.
- There is concern that Iran will install advanced centrifuges at the Natanz and Fordow underground nuclear facilities. In September Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly that due to JCPOA violations, “Iran will have enough enriched uranium in a few months for two nuclear bombs. And Iran has been working on a new generation of centrifuges, it’s called the IR9, which will multiply Iran’s enrichment capability fifty-fold.”
- Iran also threatened that if restrictions on Iran’s banking transactions and crude sales are not lifted by early January, Iran will also decrease the access it has given to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
- According to the Institute for Science and International Security, last month “Iran’s estimated breakout time as of early November 2020 is as short as 3.5 months” and the country “would require, in total, as little as 5.5 to 6 months to produce enough weapon-grade uranium for two nuclear weapons”.
Looking ahead: The UN Security Council is due to meet on December 22 for its latest review on Iranian compliance with UN Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA deal and the monitoring mechanism.
- Whilst O’Brien’s visit is likely to be one of the last made by a senior figure in the Trump administration, US Vice President Mike Pence is planning to visit Israel on 13 January.
- There is continued speculation over the steps President-elect Biden will take to reengage with Iran when he enters the White House. At the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) virtual conference last week, former MI6 chief Sir John Sawers said that if any deal could be struck, it would take more than a year.