December 3, 2021 | Policy Brief

U.S. and Europe Must Counter Potential Weapons-Grade Enrichment by Iran

December 3, 2021 | Policy Brief

U.S. and Europe Must Counter Potential Weapons-Grade Enrichment by Iran

Israel has shared intelligence with the United States and other allies indicating the Islamic Republic of Iran plans to enrich uranium to 90 percent purity, the level necessary for nuclear weapons. This unprecedented move would test whether there is any Iranian nuclear advance that would spur the Biden administration and its European allies to impose punitive measures rather than pursue negotiations regardless of Tehran’s provocations.

Both Axios and CNN reported Jerusalem’s warning, yet the only specific basis they identified for the Israeli conclusion was a broad finding that Iran is taking “technical steps” to prepare for 90 percent enrichment. Israeli analysts further assess that Tehran’s plan represents an effort to gain leverage at the indirect talks between Iran and the United States aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. The talks resumed in Vienna on Monday.

Separately, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on Wednesday that Iran has begun enriching uranium to 20 percent purity in a cascade of advanced centrifuges at the deeply buried Fordow plant. At Fordow, separate cascades of 1,044 early-model centrifuges known as IR-1s already enrich uranium to 20 percent purity. The new model, or IR-6, is far more efficient, thus reducing the number of centrifuges required. The new arrangement at Fordow could enable Iran to quickly enrich 20 percent uranium to weapons-grade purity in a facility that is fortified against air strikes. Twenty percent enrichment represents more than 90 percent of the effort required to make weapons-grade material.

Since May 2019, Tehran has deliberately escalated its violations of the 2015 nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which the Trump administration withdrew in May 2018. During U.S. and European efforts to revive the JCPOA over the past year, Iran’s nuclear advances have become more egregious and its appetite for brinkmanship more pronounced.

In January 2021, Iran resumed enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, which it had not done since 2013. Just days after nuclear negotiations started in early April, Tehran began enriching uranium to 60 percent, which it had never done before.

At its quarterly meetings, however, the IAEA Board of Governors has declined to admonish Iran. The board has the authority to demand Iranian compliance with its nonproliferation obligations and, if necessary, to refer Tehran to the UN Security Council. Prior to each IAEA gathering this year, Iran has threatened to reduce international monitoring of its nuclear activities, destroy IAEA safeguards data, or refrain from negotiating restraints.

The passivity of the international community contrasts with its response to earlier provocations. In 2010, for example, when Tehran first began producing 20 percent enriched uranium, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1929, which imposed far-reaching sanctions, including arms and missile embargos and a ban on Iranian missile tests.

Iran’s 20 percent enrichment also set off a wave of U.S. sanctions, including key penalties against Tehran’s petroleum and financial sectors. The European Union followed suit with measures of its own. Arguably, this resolute response and the subsequent roiling of the Iranian economy led Tehran to negotiate an interim nuclear deal by 2013.

Washington and its European partners are sorely overdue in scheduling a special IAEA board meeting to censure Iran for its nuclear advances and other safeguards violations to date. Such censure ought to include a deadline after which Tehran’s failure to comply would result in board referral of Iran’s case to the UN Security Council.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Iran Program, International Organizations Program, and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Andrea, the Iran Program, the International Organizations Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


International Organizations Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Iran Sanctions Military and Political Power