Tehran's 20 Percent Enrichment is Designed to Extort Washington | Opinion

Iran has informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that it is now enriching uranium to 20 percent purity at its underground Fordow enrichment facility. The move is Tehran's most egregious violation of the 2015 nuclear deal, officially titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to date. It serves as a dangerous reminder that the regime has always retained the ability to weaponize its nuclear program—both literally and for extortion and intimidation—at any time of its choosing.

The Islamic Republic is reportedly using six cascades of its 1,044 currently installed first-generation IR-1 gas centrifuges at Fordow to increase the concentration of uranium-235 in 4.1 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride feedstock to 20 percent. In other words, it's producing uranium that qualifies as "highly enriched"—the level needed for nuclear weapons. Although states prefer to enrich uranium to higher purities for nuclear weapons—typically to 90 percent or "weapons-grade"—producing 20 percent enriched uranium takes most of the overall effort required to make weapons-grade uranium. In other words, Tehran's 20 percent gambit drastically cuts down the time needed to get "weapons-grade" uranium.

Technically, Iran is resuming 20 percent enrichment, having previously attained this level from 2010 to 2013. While the United States and the European Union had traditionally diverged in their approaches to Iran, that historic peak in enrichment was key to bringing them together to address the nuclear issue through tough sanctions. In November 2013, the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran reached an interim nuclear deal known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Starting in 2014, in exchange for partial sanctions relief, Iran halted 20 percent enrichment but retained the equipment and knowledge to resume it at will. With the attainment of the JCPOA in 2015, despite continuing to enrich at lower levels, Iran managed to score another victory and keep the Fordow facility open. Iranian officials prize Fordow for its alleged "invulnerability" to military strikes, and was initially built in secret to produce weapons-grade uranium for its early crash nuclear weapons effort.

Fast forward to the aftermath of the killing of Iran's top military nuclear scientist in November 2020. The country's hardline parliament passed a law calling for a resumption of enrichment at 20 percent purity, among other escalatory measures. Seen in this light, Tehran's decision to go to 20 percent avenges the loss of a key scientist, but still aims to elicit sanctions relief from the incoming Biden administration, should the new president hesitate to reenter the JCPOA, exited in May 2018 under President Donald Trump.

The move also signals, however, a greater tolerance for risk taking, which if not met with equal pressure, will be a harbinger of greater challenges. The Islamic Republic embarked in May 2019 on a policy of graduated escalation, designed to raise American security risks while overtly violating the JCPOA. But even then, it still did not cross the 20 percent threshold. That is, until now.

Iran nuclear plant
A picture taken on November 10, 2019, shows an Iranian flag in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, during an official ceremony to kick-start works on a second reactor at the facility. ATTA KENARE / AFP/Getty

Two factors helped to dampen Iran's drive to resume 20 percent enrichment. The first was the Trump administration's demonstrated willingness to meet pressure with pressure, and the second was the regime's desire to keep the transatlantic community divided and Europe in Tehran's corner.

Now, with the Trump administration's term in office nearing a close and Europe unable to serve as a foil to American economic pressure, elites in Iran understand that greater nuclear boldness is likely to result in a greater reward. Specifically, given that the incoming U.S. administration seeks a departure from the Trump administration's policies, the recent escalation is perfectly timed to add leverage to the Iranian position if nuclear negotiations commence.

Today, Iran's resumption of 20 percent enrichment at Fordow positions it to quickly and consistently reduce the time it requires to make adequate fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Selling this policy on Twitter, Iran's foreign minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif framed 20 percent enrichment as a "reversible" move. But in so doing, he inadvertently shined a light on a fact American policymakers failed to heed before, but must now acknowledge if they seek a durable non-proliferation agreement with Iran: any deal that relies on political compromise alone to check the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions is a non-starter.

President-elect Biden would be wise to recognize that staying the course on American pressure is the only hope for reaching a better deal and addressing Iran's nuclear threat once and for all.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrea Stricker is a research fellow.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.