Iran is set to increase the level of uranium enrichment beyond the threshold allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal, in a risky bid to force Europe’s hand to buy its oil amid stifling United States sanctions.
On Monday, Iran announced it has breached the 300kg limit in uranium that it is allowed to keep in its stockpile. The planned increase on Sunday to enrich uranium beyond the 3.67 percent cap is seen as the next step in its game plan to play hardball with Europe, while trying to keep the nuclear agreement alive.
On Friday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati said Tehran could increase the level to five percent on July 7, which marks the end of the 60-day deadline Iran had set for Europe to deliver on the financial incentives spelled out in the nuclear deal.
Velayati said the decision is a “result of consensus” in the Iranian establishment in response to the “violations” committed by the remaining parties to the deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
In 2017, US President Donald Trump had started dismantling the deal signed during the time of his predecessor Barack Obama. Trump eventually withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and started to reimpose sanctions against Iran months later.
The five percent uranium enrichment Velayati mentioned falls under medical research and power generation level.
Velayati specifically mentioned the Bushehr reactor, located in the country’s southwest, which generates electricity for Iran, saying that a “five percent purity is needed … to make use of the uranium” at the nuclear power plant.
“We will reduce our obligations as much as they reduce them,” said Velayati, addressing the JCPOA signatories.
“But if they fulfil their obligations, we will do our part in fulfilling them.”
Despite the sharp rhetoric aimed at rallying the domestic audience, the Iranian leaders have left some room for diplomatic manoeuvre.
Velayati and Kermani emphasised that the increased uranium enrichment was meant for power generation and “peaceful purpose” and “not for producing atomic bomb”.
Rouhani also said that Iran will only take action if Europe fails to deliver on its commitments.
Iran is still far-removed from a weapons-grade nuclear armament. It needs at least 1,500kg of uranium enriched at 90 percent to build a single bomb, according to nuclear experts.
Iran also gave up 12,000kg of lower-enriched uranium and shut its centrifuges in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions that allowed it to sell its oil in the international market.
Farhad Rezaei, an Iran defence expert, told Al Jazeera that it was unlikely that Iran will violate the nuclear agreement “in a meaningful way”, keeping the enrichment at about five percent level in the foreseeable future.
“This will be a source of concern, but it is not dangerous because if the regime decides to go beyond this, and turn it into weapons-grade uranium, the IAEA [UN nuclear watchdog] and intelligence services of the US and Israel will be able to detect it,” said Rezaei.
Rezaei also pointed out that in order to turn 1,500kg of uranium into highly enriched uranium, Iran has to reinstall advanced centrifuge models, which are crucial to the break-out time.
“These are not the kind of activities that the Iranians can just hide,” he said before adding that if Iran is intent on building a bomb, it would have already left the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
“Even without the JCPOA, they have to allow IAEA inspectors to visit the sites and keep the programme at peaceful purposes level” as a signatory to the NPT, he said.
Leaving the nuclear deal and the NPT is not an attractive option for the leadership in Tehran because the leadership understands that the consequences are high, he said.
“All these manoeuvres are perhaps designed to persuade the other JCPOA parties to resist Trump sanctions. If you listen to the Iranians, they repeatedly say they only want to sell their oil. Nothing more.”
On Monday, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt expressed worry about the steps Iran was taking but stopped short of threatening to put sanctions against Tehran and urged Iran to “come back into compliance” with the JCPOA.
As part of their efforts to save the nuclear deal, Germany, France and the United Kingdom created the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) in January to facilitate trade with Iran that bypasses US sanctions.
INSTEX became operational on June 28. However, transactions were only limited to items already exempted from US secondary sanctions.
What Iran wants is for this so-called special purpose vehicle (SPV) to also open the door for the purchase of its oil – something that Europe has so far resisted. With its crude oil sales dropping to 400,000 barrels a day, Iran is financially under pressure to ramp up revenue.
‘Step forward but not enough’
Earlier, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araqchi said the progress at INSTEX did not meet Iran’s expectations.
“It was a step forward, but it is still not enough and not meeting Iran’s expectations,” said Araqchi.
Mehran Haghirian, a Tehran-based political analyst, is optimistic the European signatories will be able to deliver on Tehran’s demands.
“I don’t think it is too late for negotiations. It never is,” said Haghirian.
As for diplomacy between Iran and the US, which is seen as the most decisive element in the survival of the nuclear deal, Rezaei said, “All avenues are closed off.”
“Trump’s maximum pressure on one side and Khamenei’s rejecting dialogue with the Trump administration ended the diplomatic road,” he said. “It’s a dangerous situation and any miscalculation from each side can quickly spiral out of control and end in a full-scale war.”