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Iran, Biden and the Bomb: Why Tehran Is Now Speeding Up Its Nuclear Program

Iran has delivered its first real response to Joe Biden’s victory, announcing plans for a major escalation in its nuclear program. It's a step-by-step guide to triggering a nuclear crisis – but there's still a way out

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An Iranian flag is pictured near in a missile during a military drill, with the participation of Iran's Air Defense units, Iran. October 19, 2020Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY / REUTERS

Iran delivered its first real response to Joe Biden’s election as U.S. president last week. It announced plans for a major escalation in its nuclear program.

The parliament passed, and the unelected Guardian Council approved, legislation ordering the government to significantly ratchet up its nuclear activities in the coming months. Iran’s ultimate goal is to persuade Biden to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement immediately, without preconditions or revisions. Tehran likely considers initiating a crisis over its nuclear program as the most effective way to force the issue – putting it on a collision course with the incoming U.S. administration.

Even before Biden was elected, the Trump administration and Israel had been laying the groundwork to limit his ability to return to the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Biden pledged during the campaign to return to the deal if Iran does the same (a view he repeated twice last week). 

The Trump team has unleashed a "flood" of restrictions aimed at building a "sanctions wall" to box in Biden. Jerusalem has also taken advantage of an apparent green light from Washington to degrade Iran’s nuclear capacity and spoil potential diplomatic breakthroughs. Most recently, Israeli agents allegedly killed the key architect of the country’s past nuclear weapons program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh

The Fakhrizadeh assassination likely accelerated the passage of the nuclear bill, but it’s important not to overstate its impact. The bill had been proposed well before the incident, indicating that the Guardian Council and parliament were gearing up to pass it eventually. But they certainly seized the opportunity to fast-track the bill and flex their muscles in response to the slaying of Fakhrizadeh.

An undated file handout photo provided by Iranian news agency IRNA shows Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at the award ceremony for Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in TehranCredit: - - AFP

The legislation tasks the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI)  – which runs the country’s nuclear efforts  – with taking a number of steps to expand its nuclear program. The law is short on detail but the overall message is clear: Should these measures be implemented, they would further reduce the country’s compliance with the JCPOA and heighten concerns that Tehran was strengthening its ability to potentially build a bomb.

First, the AEOI is set to produce 20 percent enriched uranium, with at least 120 kg a year of that enriched uranium remaining in the country. Iran has not enriched at this level, which is closer to weapons-grade, since before the JCPOA.

Second, the AEOI is required to increase the production of low-enriched uranium to at least 500 kg per month and to keep that amount on Iranian soil. That’s a significant increase, given that Iran is currently producing less than 150 kg every month. These two provisions are slated to begin immediately, although technical barriers may dictate how quickly the AEOI can move.

Third, the AEOI is to begin installing 1,000 advanced IR-2m centrifuges and use them for enrichment. It is also to conduct research and development with 164 advanced IR-6 centrifuges. Both these actions are to be initiated within three months of approval of the bill.

Two additional steps raise specific proliferation concerns. Within five months, the AEOI is tasked with operating a uranium metal production plan – a step that may signal a decision to return to weapons-related work.

And the bill mandates the design of an additional 40 megawatt reactor; Iran’s current 40 megawatt reactor, known as the Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor, was a major source of attention in the JCPOA because of its potential ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

The legislation also strikes at the heart of international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi listens as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali-Akbar Salehi speaks at the IAEA General Conference. Vienna, Sept 21, 2020Credit: LEONHARD FOEGER/ REUTERS

The law requires the government to stop cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency beyond what is provided for by the country’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. This includes stopping the implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and other verification and monitoring provisions outlined in the JCPOA, which grants international inspectors more insights into the full spectrum of the Iranian nuclear program. This step would take place within two months of the bill’s entry into force if the remaining parties to the nuclear deal do not restore Tehran’s banking connections and oil sales.

It is hard to sugarcoat this bill – it is a step-by-step guide to triggering a nuclear crisis akin to the pre-JCPOA period, when concerns of an Israeli attack were frequent. Yet the bill and the nuclear measures it entails are not automatic, and they are far from a death knell for diplomacy.

The Iranian system affords key figures and bodies, particularly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with the flexibility to override laws should the system’s interests dictate it in the name of maslahat, or expediency. In fact, the law itself begins by referring to Khamenei’s redlines, which he had formulated during the nuclear talks, noting that this legislation seeks to meet his requirements.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, leads the Friday prayers at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran. Jan. 17, 2020Credit: ,AP

This is a noteworthy inclusion because while Khamenei’s red lines guided the negotiations, they weren’t respected to the letter. Expediency and flexibility carried the day, and it will likely do so again, if the Iranian leadership moves toward a deal with Washington.

Key Iranian officials are already making it clear that the law won’t prevent their country from returning to the JCPOA – for fear of the news changing the calculus in the Biden and Trump camps. The bill was passed over the objections of President Hassan Rohani’s government, which considered it outside the parliament’s jurisdiction.

It is still an open question whether the bill’s eventual approval represented a humiliation for the president or was part of a good-cop/bad-cop routine. But even as the battle over the law continues, Tehran has already started the implementation process by reporting to international inspectors that it will be deploying three additional cascades of IR-2m centrifuges to the underground enrichment plant at Natanz. And the Supreme National Security Council affirmed the propriety of the bill on Saturday.

Iran's Basij paramilitary force students burn posters depicting US President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden to protest he killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Nov 28, 2020Credit: ATTA KENARE - AFP

The Rouhani government will likely make the best of the situation and use the law – and the hawkish parliament that passed it – to pressure the U.S. in eventual negotiations.

Shortly after the bill’s passing, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif noted that although his hands are now tied by the law, which he cannot ignore, the steps are reversible. He added: "The Europeans and USA can come back into compliance with the JCPOA and not only this law will not be implemented, but in fact the actions we have taken...will be rescinded. We will go back to full compliance."

Zarif’s comment is a contradiction – the government’s hands are tied until it decides that they aren’t – and it provides an early window into how the government will use the legislation’s deadlines to hurry their American counterparts to return to the deal and provide Iran with the sanctions relief it so needs.

Even with the parliament’s agitations, there are many roadblocks for Iran’s immediate re-entry to the nuclear agreement. Rohani certainly would prefer to negotiate a quick, clean re-entry – allowing him to rehabilitate his image and cement his legacy ahead of the June 2021 presidential elections, in which he cannot run but where his allies will be competing. But Khamenei and other hardliners may not be keen to deliver a victory for moderates before the June election is locked down, as we have previously argued

In any event, Tehran has made clear that while it is prepared to return to the nuclear accord, it will lean on the nuclear tactics it used during the negotiations that led to the JCPOA to try to force the new administration’s hand. Fundamentally, at least for the time being, Iran is building leverage, not a bomb.

Henry Rome is the senior Iran analyst at Eurasia Group, the global political risk research and consulting firm. Twitter: @hrome2

Ariane Tabatabai is the Middle East fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an adjunct senior research fellow at Columbia University. She’s the author of "No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran’s National Security Strategy." Twitter: @ArianeTabatabai

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