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Iran's uranium threats aim to push U.S. back into nuclear deal

Hassan Rouhani walking through a room
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Halil Sagirkaya/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

By continuing to breach caps imposed on its nuclear program, Iran is seeking to refocus Washington's attention on the nuclear issue and steer the Trump administration toward an approach more like those of his predecessors, Presidents Bush and Obama.

Why it matters: With these incremental, “reversible” transgressions of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran may try to force the U.S. to settle for what President Trump has termed a “bad deal,” rather than risk further nuclear or regional escalation.

Background: On the first anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the accord, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani laid out two 60-day timetables for nuclear escalation:

  1. For the first 60 days, Tehran would surpass domestic stockpile caps of its low-enriched uranium (fissile material that can be further enriched to weapons-grade) and heavy water (used as a moderator in Iran’s IR–40 reactor).
  2. Over the following 60 days, starting July 7, Iran would enrich uranium beyond the level of 3.67% purity permitted by the deal and cease the redesign project for the IR–40 reactor, thus increasing its proliferation risk.

What’s next: Given that Iran is making good on its latest uranium threats, Tehran could be hedging its bets if bilateral or multilateral negotiations commence, as an expanded and more dangerous nuclear program affords the regime greater leverage during talks.

  • Iranian officials have hinted at yet another 60-day period of nuclear escalation, beginning in early September, that could feature enrichment of uranium to 20% purity and put the regime closer to nuclear-weapons capacity.

Between the lines: Reports indicate that Iran will be enriching up to — but not past —5%. This suggests that Iran's strategy still involves preventing Europe from working with America to collapse the UNSC resolution that enshrines the JCPOA.

  • The termination of that resolution could occur if the issue is escalated through the entire Joint Commission process outlined in the nuclear deal.

The bottom line: Iran’s incremental escalation is designed to heighten fears over the direction of the country’s nuclear program, thus incentivizing premature diplomacy over productive diplomacy. While any escalation is a gamble, Iranian leaders appear ready to resume the game of “chicken” that defined the country's relations with the West from 2006 to 2015.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.