Iran’s declaration on Monday that it has begun enriching uranium to the 20 percent level at its Fordow underground nuclear facility is part of the Islamic Republic’s drive to improve its bargaining position vis-à-vis the Biden administration, a former Israeli defense official has told JNS.
“Their idea is to gather bargaining chips ahead of the nuclear talks,” said Col. (res.)
Udi Evental, senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
“They want to create pressure leverages for future talks, and they felt this is the right timing. It does not expose them to American retaliation, and it is a ‘proud’ national response to the killings of [former Al Quds Commander] Qassem Soleimani and [former head of the military nuclear program] Mohsen Fakhrizadeh,” he added.
Evental has served as the former head of the Strategic Planning Unit of the Political-Military and Policy Bureau of the Israeli Defense Ministry, and was also Israel’s intelligence attaché in Washington. He has held multiple positions in the Intelligence and Planning directorates of the Israel Defense Force.
“The Iranians likely took this decision in recent days after discussions. The central goal is to remove sanctions. An escalation with the U.S. does not serve that logic,” said Evental.
A return to the nuclear deal would, however, pave the way for Iran to become a nuclear threshold state, he warned. In seven years, when JCPOA’s main limitations begin to expire, there would be no constraints on the quality and quantity of uranium enrichment centrifuges that Iran could possess or how much uranium it could enrich.
“They could get to almost zero breakout time with full international legitimacy. This is why it’s a bad agreement, and must be repaired, though this is easier said than done,” he said.
Iran is also extremely keen to rescue its economy, which has been ravaged by U.S. sanctions over recent years, meaning that it is interested in an immediate return to the deal signed between it and leading international powers.
While a return to JCPOA would not cancel out Iran’s nuclear know-how gained through the research and development of advanced centrifuges in violation of the agreement, Tehran is ready to roll back all of its violations in exchange for full sanctions relief.
‘No longer bound by any restrictions’
Evental noted that this is not the first time that Iran enriched uranium to 20 percent. In 2012, after Iran amassed 190 kilograms of uranium that was enriched to the 20 percent level, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned at the U.N. General Assembly that further progress by the Iranians would cross an Israeli red line.
“For one atomic bomb, the Iranians need to take 230 to 250 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, and turn this into few dozens of kilograms of 90 percent (highly enriched uranium),” he said.
Currently, the Iranians are claiming that they are only going to produce 8 to 9 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium per month, he said, adding that, if true, this is a slow pace, and below the real capacity of the Fordow plant. “Under these conditions, it will take Iran almost two years to accumulate enough uranium for one nuclear device, which leaves plenty of time for negotiations,” explained Evental.
He said he had been expecting this Iranian step for a while, especially after the Jan. 3 drone-strike assassination of Soleimani by the United States. “In May 2019, they announced the beginning of violations of the nuclear agreement through five gradual steps. Their fifth step was made in January 2020, a year ago, when they announced that they are no longer bound by any restrictions.”
Meanwhile, questions remain over Iran’s potential retaliation to the killings of Fakhrizadeh, which it blames on Israel, and Soleimani.
Evental noted that the United States has pulled out all the stops when it comes to deterring Iran, sending B-52 bombers to fly over the region as well as a submarine, and keeping an aircraft-carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf.
The Iranians, who seized a South Korean oil tanker on Monday, continue to threaten revenge against both Israel and the United States.
“The Iranians probably have plans to conduct terror attacks, but they do not want an uncontrolled escalation,” said Evental. “One risk is that in Iraq and elsewhere, Iran’s proxies could seize the initiative, and that could escalate.”
While neither Iran, the United States or Israel want a military escalation, that does not preclude an escalation dynamic from developing, he cautioned, although all sides will try to avoid this.
An Iranian attack against an Israeli target over the Fakhrizadeh assassination is more likely than an attack on the United States, he assessed, noting that the IDF has pointed to the risk of missile attacks from Iraq or Yemen, where Iran arms its proxy organizations with advanced capabilities.
Still, Israel is itself creating a deterrent posture against Iran.
‘We have to prepare for this risk very seriously’
On Dec. 21, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Avivi Kochavi issued a stark warning, stating, “Lately, we’ve noticed a rise in Iranian threats against the State of Israel. If Iran and its partners, members of the radical axis, either directly or by proxy, will take action against Israel, they will find themselves in a very costly endeavor. The IDF will strike all those involved in activities against the State of Israel or against Israeli targets, whether in part or in full, whether near or far. … I advise our enemies not to test us.”
It remains unclear whether such a warning is sufficient to deter Iran from attempting a terror attack overseas.
The United Arab Emirates reportedly arrested a squad of Iranian terrorists planning attacks on the anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination, at a time when many Israeli tourists are visiting the country.
“We have to prepare for this risk very seriously,” said Evental. “Iran also has sleeper cell networks in Europe. It is certainly a threat. They believe that if harmed, it is their right to attack. It doesn’t have to lead to an escalation in their perception, and that could undermine stability.”
During a visit to the Israel Navy’s Commando Unit on Tuesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz stated that “Iran is continuing to set the region alight with instability and chose to raise the level of its enrichment to 20 percent. Iran is a global challenge, and we, too, have our eyes open. We all must cooperate in the struggle against Iran, in its regional terrorist activity and the risk of Iran arming itself with a military nuclear program.”
The Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) released a statement on Tuesday saying that “though Iran has progressively escalated its violations of the JCPOA since [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump withdrew from it in May 2018, this latest move represents the biggest nuclear escalation by Tehran in a decade.”
JINSA assessed that “Iran’s breakout window will shrink quickly as its 20 percent LEU stockpile grows, dwindling from around four months to potentially as little as two months by mid-2021.”
It added that “the move to 20 percent enrichment also marks a major but subtle shift in Iran’s counter-pressure strategy.”