Dec 2, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Iran plans to increase uranium enrichment if U.S. sanctions remain

Photo of protesters in Iran burning portraits of Donald Trump and Joe Biden
Protesters burn portraits of President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden in a rally against the assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist in Tehran, Iran. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty

Iran plans to begin increasing its nuclear enrichment levels and prohibit international inspectors from accessing nuclear facilities if U.S. oil and banking sanctions are not lifted by this coming February, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: A new law ratified Wednesday orders Iran's atomic energy agency to expand uranium enrichment to match levels prior to the 2015 nuclear agreement. The move comes as a direct response to the assassination of the nation's top nuclear scientist, and appears to put pressure on President-elect Biden to reenter the 2015 deal immediately upon taking office.

The big picture: Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, speaker of Iran’s Parliament and a former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said: "The criminal enemy will not feel remorse unless we show a fierce reaction," per the Times.

  • In response, lawmakers in the chamber chanted: “Death to Israel” and “death to America."
  • President Hassan Rouhani objected the move, calling it "damaging for diplomacy.” But he will now have to enforce it.

Context: Iran has long said its nuclear program exists for peaceful purposes, but Israeli and American officials believe otherwise.

  • Iran has waited out two years of "maximum pressure" under President Trump, but Rouhani's more patient approach has come under fierce pressure from more hardline voices, particularly after Friday's assassination.

Where things stand: Biden has long said he would return the U.S. to the nuclear deal, which would require lifting sanctions, if Iran returns to compliance.

  • Iran is now increasing the pressure on Biden to make the first move. Iranian officials have also dismissed Biden's ultimate objective of negotiating a more ambitious follow-on agreement.
  • The Biden transition team declined to provide comment to Axios, citing the principle that "there is one president at a time."

The bottom line: “Tehran wants to be at the top of the agenda for the new administration and escalating its nuclear program is a surefire way to do it,” Henry Rome, senior analyst at Eurasia Group, told the Times.

Go deeper: Iran's nuclear dilemma: Ramp up now or wait for Biden

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