Iran Advances Nuclear Program While Demanding International Action on Top Scientist's Assassination

Iran's parliament has approved a new draft measure ordering the country's atomic energy agency to expand its activities far beyond that allowed under the beleaguered Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, as Tehran looks to respond to last week's assassination of its top nuclear scientist.

Iran's conservative-majority parliament on Tuesday approved the first reading of a "strategic action plan" that will order the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to produce at least 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium annually. It was approved by 251 of 260 lawmakers and will now be subject to a second reading, the state-run Press TV reported.

Uranium must be highly enriched to around 90 percent to be used in nuclear weapons. The technical step to jump from 20 to 90 percent is relatively simple, meaning a stock of 20 percent uranium would shorten Tehran's so-called "breakout time" to a bomb if the regime decided to pursue one.

The JCPOA limited Iran to enriching uranium to a limit of 3.67 percent. It also set a stockpile limit of 202.8 kilograms for this level of uranium. Iran already has a stockpile 12 times this size, and of uranium enriched up to 4.5 percent.

Uranium enriched to between 3 and 5 percent can be used in nuclear power facilities. The legislation will require the AEOI to increase its monthly output of low-enriched uranium with varying purity levels by at least 500 kilograms.

The bill will also stop international inspections of Iran's nuclear sites by International Atomic Energy Agency officials, a central element of the JCPOA.

Parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said the bill was a sign that the "one-sided game is over," referring to international efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program and American-Israeli covert actions to undermine it.

Iran has been violating the JCPOA piecemeal since Trump withdrew from the 2015 accord in 2018. But assassinations of top figures, possible sabotage of its nuclear sites and the American sanctions campaign has pushed Tehran to move further from dialogue.

Iranian officials are now furious after the killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh—widely considered the father of Iran's atomic program—by an unidentified hit squad in the city of Absard near Tehran last week.

Tehran has blamed Israel and the U.S. for the killing, and a report by The New York Times cited U.S. intelligence sources who said Israel was behind the operation. If accurate, it is unclear whether President Donald Trump's administration knew about the Israeli operation beforehand.

Trump is doubling down on his "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran in his last months in office, and observers have speculated his lame duck period might bring more direct military or covert action against Tehran to undermine its nuclear program and spoil President-Elect Joe Biden's chances of reviving ties with the regime.

Iran has condemned the killing as an act of state terrorism characteristic of Israeli and American belligerence. The regime's leading figures have vowed revenge against those responsible.

Meanwhile, Tehran is demanding that international bodies condemn the assassination and take action against those accused of involvement.

Esmaeil Baghaei Hamaneh—Iran's permanent representative to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva, Switzerland—said Tuesday that the UN must take a stand against Fakhrizadeh's killing.

Hamaneh wrote to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and said the "heinous assassination" bore hallmarks of Israeli involvement, according to the IRNA.

In Vienna, Iran's IAEA envoy Kazem Gharibabadi said the agency must honor its obligations to its members. "The IAEA has an immediate and primary responsibility toward the member state that has accepted the highest level of the agency's inspections, has the most transparent nuclear program as it implements various commitments," he told reporters Monday.

"But its scientists are exposed to assassination threats or are targeted by terrorists, and its nuclear facilities are exposed to aggression or are targeted with sabotage," Gharibabadi said.

The UN has already condemned the attack. A spokesperson for the organization said last week: "We urge restraint and the need to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region...We condemn any assassination or extrajudicial killing."

The European Union, meanwhile—a signatory of the JCPOA along with France and Germany—said the killing was "a criminal act" that "runs counter to the principle of respect for human rights the EU stands for." The bloc also urged all sides to show "calm and maximum restraint."

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran, JCPOA, nuclear deal, assassination
Iranian forces pray around the coffin of slain nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during the burial ceremony at Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in northern Tehran, on November 30, 2020. HAMED MALEKPOUR/TASNIM NEWS/AFP via Getty Images/Getty