In July 2015, when the Iranian Nuclear Deal was signed, Iran was able to produce 20 per cent enriched Uranium. Today its capability is close to 90 per cent. Will the Iranians be ready to proceed with the deal at this stage? However, it may not be in Iran’s interest to produce nuclear weapons now.
In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of activity concerning the Iran nuclear deal, which had virtually been put in the freezer for the past six months owing to differences between Iran and the P5 plus1. Further, the diversion of the West’s focus on the ongoing Ukraine war relegated the issue regarding priorities. In one such recent development, the IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi visited Iran on 3-4th March 2023 and held discussions with the President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Mohammad Eslami. He also met the President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, during the visit. In the joint statement issued after the visit, Iran expressed its readiness to continue its cooperation and provide further information and access to address the outstanding safeguards issues. Iran, on a voluntary basis, will allow the IAEA to implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities. The visit has offered some hope after a turbulent few weeks of allegations and counter-allegations between Iran and the international agencies on its nuclear enrichment program.
It all started when a recent IAEA report indicated that, on 21st January 2023, its inspectors discovered that the two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges in the Fordo nuclear plant in Iran had been configured in a way “substantially different” to what had been previously declared. The samples collected showed particles up to 83.7 per cent enriched uranium, very close to the 90 per cent required for weapon-grade uranium. France, Germany, the UK and the US issued a joint statement expressing deep concern over ‘the near-weapons-grade uranium’ and asked Iran to follow safeguard protocols. Iran denied that it has intentionally enriched uranium to a purity of 84 per cent, stating that in the process of enrichment, some small particles may get more enriched, but that does not indicate that the enrichment levels have been enhanced.
It may be recalled that on 13th April 2021, soon after a cyber-attack on the Natanz nuclear plant, Iran had announced its intention to enrich uranium to 60 per cent. It was seen as a major escalation as it brought Iran virtually to the doorstep of making a nuclear warhead which requires 90 per cent enriched uranium. While the nuclear talks, revived after US President Biden took office in January 2021, continued concurrently, Iran announced in November 2021 that it had already enriched and produced about 25 kilograms of uranium at 60 per cent purity, a level that no country apart from those with nuclear arms can produce.
While Iran continued enriching uranium, the nuclear talks continued until January 2022, when the eighth round was concluded with an understanding that most of the technical issues had been agreed to and the deal is now possible within the parameters of ‘political decisions’. However, the Ukraine war broke out on 24th February 2022, putting the Iran nuclear talks on the back burner.
The question is not whether Iran has enriched Uranium up to 84 per cent or not but whether Iran intends to make a nuclear weapon. Nuclear experts claim that the major technological challenge is to enrich Uranium to 20 per cent, where it enters the category of HEU, i.e., Highly Enriched Uranium. After that, with modern and high-capacity centrifuges like the ‘IR6’ Iran is presently using, it is only a matter of time and ‘political will’ before weapon-grade Uranium is produced. It may be recalled that when the Iran nuclear deal was signed in July 2015, Iran had enriched Uranium only up to 20 per cent and had to ship it out as per the deal. With 60 per cent declared enrichment since April 2021, Iran is way ahead of its earlier threshold.
The next question to be answered is, what is stopping the deal from being signed? At the end of the eighth round of talks in January 2022, the technical issues were agreed upon and left to the ‘political decisions’. Whereas P5 plus1 may have been ready to sign the deal, Iran had two major political reservations to the nuclear deal; first is a sovereign assurance sought from the US that the US will not unilaterally revoke the deal in future, and second, that the US should remove Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) off its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
On both issues, the US is not yet ready to concede. Add to this is the IAEA resolution of 6th June 2022 formally criticizing Iran for lack of cooperation and criticizing it for failure to explain uranium traces found at undeclared sites in Iran. Iran promptly followed up by shutting down IAEA’s surveillance cameras recording data beyond the Safeguards Agreement. IAEA followed up its June resolution with another resolution in November 2022, again asking Iran about undeclared nuclear sites and traces of uranium found. Iran, however, says no agreement can be reached to revive the nuclear deal as long as the IAEA continues its probe into uranium traces.
In fact, with every new resolution or sanction imposed on Iran by the West, Iran looks more determined to carry on its enrichment, and the deal looks like slipping away farther and faster. Among the primary entities in Iran, IRGC has been repeatedly targeted, and in one such latest move, the EU Parliament sanctioned the IRGC, labelling it as a terrorist group and sanctioning it in January 2023. Iran’s military ties with Russia, especially the supply of Iranian drones to Russia, have been specifically targeted and sanctions imposed. In February 2023, the EU slapped sanctions on Iran for supplying military drones to Russia for their use in the Ukraine war. Also, a weapons factory in the Iranian city of Isfahan, known to be a production hub for drones and missiles, was targeted by a drone attack on 29th January 2023, which Iran alleged, originated from Israel
Is There a Way Out?
Despite the stiff sanctions, Iran has survived for over forty years. Iran’s ties with Russia and China, its major allies and benefactors, look solid. The recent visit of President Raisi to China in February 2023 is significant, being the first visit of an Iranian President to China in two decades. During the visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed support for Iran and stated, “China supports Iran in maintaining its national sovereignty and opposing unilateralism and bullying.” It may be recalled that Iran and China had signed a 25-year “strategic cooperation pact” during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Iran in March 2021.
Also, there is evidence from history which establishes two clear facts; firstly, the world powers have not yet been able to stop any nation from developing a successful nuclear weapons program if its ‘national and political will’ so decides (North Korea, Israel, India, Pakistan etc.). Secondly, despite so-called rogue players (state or non-state), there has not been any incident of any nuclear weapon nation using its nuclear weapons in any conflict.
Also, despite its capability, it may not be presently in Iran’s interest to weaponise its nuclear program. Instead, it may prefer to maintain a level of ‘nuclear latency’, just below the threshold of a declared nuclear weapons programme.
With the high-grade centrifuges speedily churning out 60 per cent or higher grade Uranium, it may soon be impossible to get Iran back to the status of the nuclear deal of 2015. Also, with Iran claiming higher moral ground this time, it would be difficult to force Iran into a deal without concrete assurances. The West must also understand that “Maximum Pressure” or ‘sanctions’ have not worked their magic on Iran. Despite the IAEA Chief’s recent visit to Iran, hope for the Iran nuclear deal looks slim. The Iran nuclear deal is in a deep coma, more dead than alive, and it will take some serious work and a major climb-down by both parties for a deal to emerge on the horizon before it is too late.
Col Rajeev Agarwal (Retd)