Iran’s announcement that it was putting 30 more IR-6 centrifuges into operation is another stop on the path of nuclear deal violations. Tehran started down this path in May as part of its efforts to pressure European countries and push the United States to remove its economic sanctions on the country. The practical consequence of this latest violation is that Iran can enrich uranium from seven to 10 times faster than it could with the old IR-1 centrifuges.
Although the speed of enrichment constitutes a violation of the nuclear agreement, it doesn’t improve Iran’s nuclear military potential so long as it doesn’t exceed the limit of 20 percent enrichment and move toward the 95 percent required to produce nuclear weapons. During the two previous violations of the nuclear agreement, Iran increased the scope of its enriched uranium beyond the 300 kilograms permitted and raised the percentage of enrichment to above 3.67 – though it has been careful not to reach a level of 20 percent, which would signal military intentions, if not military capabilities.
The speed of enrichment is central to the nuclear agreement because it’s meant to lengthen the time Iran would need to produce a quantity of military-level uranium. The purpose of the agreement was to assure a “breakout time” – the time required to produce enough enriched uranium to build a bomb – of 12 months rather than two to three. The deal states that Iran can operate IR-6 centrifuges only eight years after the signing of the agreement, but in return it would have to dismantle the older centrifuges so as not to decrease the breakout time. Iran is starting to operate these new centrifuges some four years before the date stipulated in the agreement, but it still isn’t clear if it will also increase the quantity of enriched uranium or the percentage of the enrichment.
This tedious data demonstrates the wiggle room Iran has until its violations will be considered critical or approach the point of no return, thus requiring a response. Up until now Iran has been announcing its plans to violate the nuclear deal and has even allowed inspectors to examine the extent of the violations. At the same time, it doesn’t seem that these violations are cracking the sanctions regime or leading European countries to implement a circumvention mechanism, even or intensifying the rift between Europe and the U.S. that was created when President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement. But the violations have posed a dilemma for the five countries that remain part of the agreement: They must decide not only when Iran’s violations have turned critical, but how to react if they do.
The prospect of stopping Iran’s breaches likely lies in direct negotiations between Tehran and Washington. Trump has been seeking to do this, but his overtures have been rejected by Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced again this week that he sees no room for such negotiations until the sanctions are lifted in accordance with the nuclear accord. The United States, which does not want a military confrontation with Iran, has exhausted most of the non-military measures available to it with general and personal sanctions imposed on the regime, but these haven't changed Iranian policy. Despite the severe economic crisis created by the sanctions, the Iranian economy is still functioning and shows no signs of a collapse that would threaten the stability of the regime. Iran now seems more concerned about the protests that have erupted against it in Iraq and Lebanon. These culminated in an attack on the Iranian consulate in Karbala in Iraq; protesters burned images of Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Baghdad and several cities in southern Iraq.
Iran is blaming Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States for initiating these demonstrations and is pushing Iraq to crack down hard on the demonstrators. It has even threatened to send Iranian forces to Iraq to suppress the protests. The anti-American atmosphere was fanned by the demonstrations throughout Iran on Sunday to mark the 40th anniversary of the revolutionary forces' takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which included holding 55 American diplomats hostage for a year and a half. Posters reading “Death to America,” drawings of the Statue of Liberty with its arm cut off filled the streets, and the commander of the Iranian army declared that “the war against the United States is for our independence and freedom.” With great fanfare the government passed a resolution stating that the school curriculum would now include classes on American crimes against Iran throughout history.
But these anti-American displays can’t hide the disagreements within the Iranian leadership regarding the policy it ought to follow to extract itself from the economic crisis. The conflicting statements made recently by Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, which signaled the preconditions for negotiations with the U.S. despite the ayatollah's vehemently opposing position, may be evidence that Khamenei’s determined stance isn’t the last word.
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