Iran’s nuclear breaches ratchet up risks in showdown with Washington
DUBAI - The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran had begun enriching uranium to 4.5%, a concentration that breaches the limit set by the Iran nuclear accord.
Weapons-grade uranium is at least 90% enriched and Iran’s new levels are still considered low, although it is reportedly growing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
Iran’s breaches do not presently represent a major risk but, if it begins enriching to higher levels and growing its nuclear stockpile, the time to a “nuclear break-out,” when Iran may have enough material for a weapon, becomes shorter.
The United States criticised Iran for the move as “crude” and designed to “extort payments,” saying Tehran had no excuse to breach its commitments to the nuclear accord.
Iran holds the United States responsible for jeopardising the deal by unilaterally withdrawing from it in May 2018 and imposing hefty sanctions, which have created a crisis in Iran.
The recent events escalated regional tensions and increased the possibility of a direct military confrontation between Iran and the United States.
Iran’s breaches came after it gave European signatories to the nuclear accord a 60-day deadline in June to save the deal by compensating Iran against losses caused by US sanctions.
Tehran said it is prepared to reverse its breaches and return to compliance with the original terms of the deal if Europe can guarantee the economic rewards Iran was promised with the agreement.
The International Atomic Energy Agency backs the view that Iran has been in compliance with conditions of the nuclear accord. However, Iran said that, after its 60-day deadline, it would move to a “third phase.” While it is unclear what that would entail, the nuclear accord could effectively be dead within months.
The United States had taken on risks when it withdrew from the agreement because it was always possible it ended up with nothing. While Washington has been pushing Iran for a renegotiation of the deal, its calls have been rejected with Tehran saying it can no longer trust Washington to uphold any deal.
However, Tehran recently has signalled it could become possible to talk with the United States if economic sanctions are lifted first. While not necessarily a concession, the development creates some space for manoeuvre on both sides.
Analysts said Iran’s regional activities jeopardised the nuclear deal. Because it was unclear whether Iran would change them and other behaviour to become more pragmatic, the United States used its influence to slow the economic benefits Iran was expecting with the nuclear accord.
The United States was wary that a financially stronger Iran could become a bigger challenge across the region, especially given the extent of its role in Syria and Yemen.
As it turned out, Iran complied with the nuclear accord but intensified the regional activities it had been widely criticised for.
The United States left the accord to bring things to a head and force Iran into a wider negotiation on its nuclear programme and other strategic areas of contention through applying brute economic pressure and buffing up its military posture.
Tensions remain high, with Iran recently being charged with attempting to seize a British tanker in the Gulf in retaliation for an Iranian tanker, said to be illegally heading for Syria, seized by British forces in Gibraltar.
The United States is working to step up international monitoring of the region’s key sea lanes following a series of tanker attacks. There is speculation the United States is mulling other measures against Iran short of war, such as additional sanctions, cyber operations and perhaps enhanced support for social activists challenging the status quo in Iran.
A military conflict against Iran is a scenario the region is keen to avoid considering its highly unpredictable consequences. Europe has limited leverage on the crisis and appears to lack a clear, unified position on the standoff.
The current trajectory is defined by an increasingly high-stakes competition so international diplomatic efforts, particularly by European leaders, might need to work to find a breakthrough within the coming weeks that eases tensions involving Iran.