Behnam Ben Taleblu
Mohammad Eslami, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI), recently proclaimed that the Islamic Republic is ahead of schedule on a parliamentary mandate to enrich 120 kg of uranium to 20 percent purity by the end of 2021. Eslami’s comment builds on months of atomic advances, all of which serve as proof of Tehran’s continuing commitment to a policy of nuclear escalation and coercion.
Uranium enriched to 20 percent and above is qualified as highly enriched uranium (HEU), which Iran is prohibited from producing and stockpiling pursuant to the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). HEU at higher purities is used in nuclear weapons. States that can enrich up to 20 percent have mastered the lion’s share of the technical work to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, should they decide to develop them.
At present, it is unclear if the 120 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium is all in the gaseous form known as uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which is suitable for enrichment via centrifuge. The 120 kg figure could be a rough composite of Iran’s 33 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium that remains in different chemical forms and the 84.3 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium that the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said was in UF6 form as of August 2021.
According to experts, it is also possible that Iran is using a different technical measurement, hexafluoride mass, rather than uranium mass and is choosing to tout this repackaged higher figure for political purposes. It may also be possible, but less likely, that Iran’s rate of production at its declared enrichment facilities, the underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant and the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz, has increased.
While this question is unlikely to be resolved until the IAEA’s next quarterly report, Eslami’s announcement conveys Iran’s intent to benefit from its nuclear expansion by increasing pressure on Washington to make more concessions. Earlier this year, an unnamed Iranian official explicitly stated that Iran would not cease enrichment to 20 percent purity until the removal of U.S. sanctions. “I expect Mr. Eslami to implement the system’s strategy well,” said Fereydoun Abbasi, one of Eslami’s predecessors at the AEOI, in an interview last month.
Although it can be tempting to see Iran’s growing 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile as the result of guidance given by the new ultra-hardline President Ebrahim Raisi and his internationally sanctioned cabinet, the Islamic Republic resumed enriching to 20 percent purity in January 2021, late in the presidency of Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. According to the IAEA, Tehran produced 17.6 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium this February and 62.8 kg this May, all in UF6 form and measured in uranium mass.
Iran’s parliament, which mandated this escalation, did so in response to the killing of Iran’s top military-nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, in late 2020. Since then, Tehran has used more alleged sabotage as a reason to press for further advances, such as enrichment of uranium to 60 percent purity, a threat the regime has been making for about a decade but did not act on until this April.
Despite the change in style between Rouhani and Raisi, as well as the changes in Iranian government personnel, Tehran has remained consistent in its nuclear policy since Washington left the JCPOA in 2018. While the likely overall aim of this policy is to force America to re-enter a fast-expiring nuclear accord and win sanctions relief, the more the program presses ahead unimpeded, the less restraint Iran may feel down the line. This policy appears to have gone through three different phases, representing the varying levels of risks the regime is willing to run — which are informed first and foremost by Tehran’s understanding of America’s stomach for escalation.
The first phase, starting in mid-2018, is when Iran sought to show “strategic patience.” Tehran was openly hoping that Washington’s unilateral sanctions policy would backfire and fail. Spurred by a desire to respond to the surprising efficacy of U.S. sanctions, Tehran commenced phase two in mid-2019 — gradual and overt violations of the JCPOA while escalating regional and maritime tensions through aggressive military and proxy militia actions. The third and final phase, which began in 2020 and continues until today, features significant nuclear escalation. These moves — such as the production of uranium metal and the knowledge Iran is gaining from making 60 percent enriched uranium — can no longer be considered reversible. By directly impeding IAEA access to monitoring equipment and data, Tehran has also aimed to be more provocative.
The third phase therefore offers the Islamic Republic a chance to develop new nuclear facts on the ground while taking its strategic competition with Washington to a new level. This is why if the Biden administration is serious about preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, it must advance a strategy of its own to hold the regime accountable for its nuclear advances.
Currently, the Biden administration has not even used counterproliferation authorities to sanction Eslami, the man overseeing this escalation, while the United Nations, United Kingdom, and European Union already have. Eslami has a worrisome past that includes leading organizations supportive of Tehran’s nuclear weapons drive as well as serving in key positions in firms that produce drones and ballistic missiles for the Islamic Republic.
At the very least, Washington should work with international partners to censure Tehran at the next quarterly IAEA Board of Governors meeting. Tehran has thrice managed to avoid censure this year. The Biden administration should also support the efforts of its European partners, who in 2020 triggered the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism within the Joint Commission — the body created by the accord to resolve issues pertaining to implementation — to address Iran’s mounting deal violations. And finally, should Tehran not relent, Washington and its international partners should “snap back” UN Security Council resolutions and penalties on Iran, a process that would occur once the IAEA Board forwarded Iran’s nuclear file back to the Security Council. This would ramp up the multilateral pressure on the Islamic Republic and fortify the Biden administration’s claims of a closing “window” and a diminishing “runway” for diplomacy.
Currently, the Biden administration continues to hope that its offer of talks will be sufficient to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. But Tehran’s growing confidence in its nuclear escalation — particularly its growing stockpiles of 20 percent and 60 percent enriched uranium — indicate that this may not happen soon or even in the manner the administration desires.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Behnam, the Iran Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD and the Iran Program on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.