Iran responds to Trump’s crackdowns with promise to increase nuclear enrichment

Tehran and Washington are engaged in a hot and dangerous cycle of signaling.

President of Iran Hassan Rouhani  in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on June 15, 2019. CREDIT: Halil Sagirkaya/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
President of Iran Hassan Rouhani in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on June 15, 2019. CREDIT: Halil Sagirkaya/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Iran has said it will exceed the uranium stockpile limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal in 10 days, making it possible for the country to enrich as much as 20% and bringing it closer to having weapons-grade material.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, speaking to reporters at the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor, said Monday the increase in enrichment would be “based on the country’s needs.”

According to Kamalvandi, the country needs 5% enrichment for its power plant in Bushehr, which exceeds the 3.67% allowed but the deal, and 20% enrichment for research at a reactor in Tehran.

The move is seen as a retaliation to the Trump administration’s crackdowns on Iran, and could, in fact, be used by the U.S. president and the hardliners in his inner circle — including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton — as reason to justify military action against Iran.

Iran is likely well aware of this possibility.

“That’s the reason why they’ve avoided doing it [increasing their uranium enrichment] for a while,” said Richard Nephew, former director for Iran on the National Security Staff under President Barack Obama.


“But, I think they’ve concluded that they’re going to get the harms anyway so there is no functional difference between JCPOA compliance and noncompliance insofar as their consequences are concerned,” he added, answering questions via email.

This is the latest escalation in tensions between Iran and the United States. On Thursday, the United States blamed Iran for an attack on two ships in the Gulf of Oman almost immediately after they happened, with Pompeo accusing Iran of trying to disrupt global oil markets by attacking ships in its regional waters.

Iran categorically denies any involvement. U.S. allies, meanwhile, have been urging calm, as concerns grow over the potential of conflict sparking in the tense region.

The U.N. Secretary General has called for an independent investigation into the incident. The operator of one of the ships seems to dispute U.S. accounts of the attack, and has not blamed Iran for the incident.

Iran is ‘signaling,’ not building a bomb

Reuters reported on Sunday that Helga Schmid, secretary general of European Union external action service, was in Tehran last week, and said that the E.U. remains focused on “delivering on its primary goal … to ensure that Iran does not acquire material or equipment to develop a nuclear weapon.”


Iran maintains that its nuclear program is a peaceful one, aimed at the country’s energy needs, and will, for the time being, allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to continue inspecting its facilities. The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency has repeatedly stated Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal.

Nephew, who is currently a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told ThinkProgress that he doesn’t believe that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon.

“No, this is signaling and building up chits for a negotiation,” he said.

“If they were trying to go to weapons, they would be doing things in a different way — such as starting right now to build the centrifuge cascades they need for that. This is about scaring people into cooperating and reminding us that they’re here,” he added.

Even if Iran wanted to build a bomb, it would take the country about a year to produce enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon.

“While any violation of the deal is concerning, breaching the limit on low-enriched uranium does not pose a near-term proliferation risk,” the Washington-based Arms Control Association said in a statement Monday.

Relations unravelling fast

The relationship between Tehran and Washington has been in tatters since President Donald Trump in May 2018 pulled the United States out of the nuclear agreement made between Iran, the United States, France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany.


Under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran was offered sanctions relief in exchange for curbing its enrichment activity. But citing a number of issues unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program (such as Iran’s participation in Syria’s civil war), Trump left the deal, imposed sanctions on Iran, and has sent U.S. carriers and bombers to the region.

Trump has on more than one occasion noted that he’s ready to hold talks with Iran, an invitation Iran has said it would not accept while the crippling sanctions effectively barr it from most global trade remain in place.

On May 8, exactly one year after Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the country would stop complying with some of the JCPOA’s clauses within 60 days, putting European partners on notice to come up with a solution that brings back sanctions relief.

Rouhani said Iran would halt the sale of excess stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water from its nuclear reactors — actions that are not in direct violation of the 2015 deal, but certainly test the limits of how the agreement’s provisions are interpreted.

Aside from the United States, all the other partners in the JCPOA want to keep the deal alive, but Trump has threatened them with secondary sanctions.

Still, the European partners are working on a financial instrument called In Support Of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) — a new non-dollar trading back channel aimed at avoiding U.S. sanctions.

But Rouhani on Monday told France’s new ambassador to Tehran that the state of affairs is untenable.

“The current situation is very critical and France and the other parties to the JCPOA still have a very limited opportunity to play their historic role for saving the deal,” he said, according to quotes provided by his official website. “There is no doubt that the collapse of the JCPOA will not be beneficial for Iran, France, the region and the world.”