Iran’s decision to resume 20 percent uranium enrichment in its underground nuclear power plant in Fordow is likely to exacerbate already heightened tensions between the US and Iran and pose a new hurdle to the hopes of the new Biden administration to revive the dying Iranian nuclear deal .
Despite renewed tension between the two countries, top Biden advisers said the new administration plans to resume negotiations with Iran to curb its nuclear program. During the Trump administration, which withdrew from the Iran deal in 2018, Iran resumed enrichment and came closer to building a nuclear weapon – despite the Trump administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” strategy.
“Biden has said that if Iran respects its terms under the nuclear deal … in order for its program to be back in a box we would come back, but that would become the basis for these follow-up negotiations.” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s new national security advisor, told CNN in an interview on Sunday. Sullivan added that the Iranian ballistic missile program “must be on the table” in any negotiations that would follow Washington and Tehran’s return to the Iran nuclear deal, a key issue for Iranian hawks and Republican critics of the Obama nuclear deal -Era.
These statements largely coincide with the long-standing position of former President Barack Obama and President-elect Joe Biden that a number of sensitive issues – including Iran’s ballistic missile program and its military adventures in the region – would be addressed separately after the nuclear deal was signed .
Some experts see Iran’s latest move to advance its enrichment program as twofold. One thing is internal: to counter pressure from the Iranian parliament to increase enrichment, especially after the murder of one of the country’s top nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, late last November. The second is external to strengthen Iran’s leverage as it prepares to resume nuclear negotiations with the new Biden administration.
“This certainly looks and feels like it is before Biden took office,” said Richard Nephew, a senior research scientist at Columbia University and former senior sanctions officer who was involved in the Iran negotiations during the Obama administration . “There is concern on the Iranian side that they do not have enough to act to comply with US regulations. They may feel like they are in no position to punish the US and influence negotiations with the US to get it revoked [U.S.] Sanctions. “
Neffe said the Fordow announcement will shorten the so-called outbreak time it could take Iran to produce enough weapon fuel for a nuclear bomb, which he currently estimates would take six months or less. With sufficient supplies of uranium enriched to 20 percent, the Iranians could potentially cut the eruption time to around a month and a half. The jump from Iran’s current uranium enrichment from less than 5 percent to 20 percent is a significant technical step that brings Tehran much closer to producing weapons-grade fuel.
“This is very worrying as no civil nuclear program is required to enrich uranium to 20 percent,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the arms control association. “They are clearly trying to increase their leverage in negotiations, but I think they are exceeding and risking the possibility of that [nuclear deal] can be saved. “
“What will be important is the pace,” he added. “I would expect them to pace with the pace of discussions with the Biden administration and calibrate [other key powers]. We believed that Iran was not heading for the bomb as the leader of nuclear-armed Israel claims. You return the favor in a measured, reversible way. “
Following the Iranian announcement, Peter Stano, a spokesman for the European Union party to the Atomic Pact, expressed concern that the move would represent a “significant departure from Iran’s nuclear commitments under the [Iran nuclear deal] having a serious impact on nuclear non-proliferation. “
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted: “Iran’s decision to continue to breach its commitments to increase enrichment levels and improve industrial underground uranium enrichment capabilities can only be seen as a continued realization of its intent to develop a military, will be explained nuclear program. “
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned in an interview with Bloomberg News on Monday that Iran would step up its aggressive behavior in the Middle East in order to put pressure on the future Biden administration.
“Now that they believe that there may be a president coming into office who will make another deal with them, they will increase their activities to threaten. And for the Europeans and the United States to sign another treaty with them that will give them tremendous opportunities in America and the Gulf States with real risk, ”he said.
In the last few weeks of the Trump administration, US officials said they are on high alert for any form of confrontation with Iran, which coincides with the year-long anniversary of the US strike on which one of the most powerful and influential Iranian military commanders, Qassem, Suleimani was killed.
The Trump administration has preemptively ordered a withdrawal of U.S. personnel from the Iraqi embassy and forcefully sent two B-52 bombers across the Persian Gulf – part of an ongoing effort to use assets in the region since sanctions imposed from the U.S. Iran nuclear deal re-imposed.
On Monday, Trump ordered the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its carrier strike group to return to the Middle East, contradicting Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller’s decision to bring the group home. On the same day, Iran seized a South Korean oil tanker in the Persian Gulf to further exacerbate tensions. The Iranian authorities said the seizure was related to pollution. But the move, which could also be intended to pressure Seoul to embargo Iranian funds, coincided with signs that Iran was expanding its naval presence in the region, and inside and outside the Trump administration, current and former warned Officials the United States would be ready to roll back in case of attack.
“Iran has the ability to disrupt the flow of shipping through the Straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab, and that disruption could cause significant harm to the global economy,” said Mick Mulroy, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East for the Trump administration and now an ABC News analyst.
“If you intend to attack US forces, you can be assured that our military is ready to defend itself and respond with overwhelming force. Iran tests would be a mistake. “