Report

Iran Increases Nuclear Enrichment, Posing First Challenge for Incoming Biden Administration

The newest move could be negotiating leverage, but it’s set to worsen already strained U.S.-Iran relations in the final weeks of the Trump administration.

A staff removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of Unites States, Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at Austria International Centre in Vienna, Austria on July 14, 2015.
A staff person removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the United States, Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France, and the European Union during Iran nuclear talks in Vienna on July 14, 2015. Carlos Barria/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Iran’s decision to resume 20 percent uranium enrichment at its Fordow underground nuclear facility is likely to exacerbate already heightened U.S.-Iran tensions and poses a new hurdle to the incoming Biden administration’s hopes of reviving the moribund Iran nuclear deal.

Even with renewed tensions between the two countries, top Biden advisors said the incoming administration plans to reopen negotiations with Iran to curb its nuclear program. During the Trump administration, which pulled out of the Iran deal in 2018, Iran has resumed enrichment and gotten closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon—despite the Trump administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” strategy.

“Biden has said that if Iran comes back into compliance with its terms under the nuclear deal … so that its program is back in a box, then we would come back in, but that would become the basis for this follow-on negotiation,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s incoming national security advisor, told CNN in an interview on Sunday. Sullivan added that Iran’s ballistic missile program “has to be on the table” in any negotiations that would follow a return by Washington and Tehran to the Iran nuclear deal, a key sticking point for Iran hawks and Republican critics of the Obama-era nuclear deal.

Those remarks are largely consistent with former President Barack Obama and President-elect Joe Biden’s long-standing position that a number of thorny issues—including Iran’s ballistic missile program and its military adventures in the region—would be tackled separately after the nuclear agreement was secured.

Some experts view Iran’s latest move to ramp up its enrichment program as having two purposes. One is internal: to address pressure from Iran’s parliament to increase enrichment, particularly following the assassination late last November of one of the country’s top nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The second is external, meant to shore up Iran’s leverage as it prepares to reenter nuclear negotiations with the incoming Biden administration.

“This certainly looks and feels like this is posturing prior to Biden coming in,” said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at Columbia University and a former top sanctions official involved in Iran negotiations during the Obama administration. “There is concern on the Iranian side that they wouldn’t have enough to trade for U.S. compliance. They may feel they are not sufficiently able to punish the U.S. and have leverage in the negotiations with the U.S. to revoke [U.S.] sanctions.”

Nephew said the Fordow announcement will shorten the so-called breakout time it could take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade fuel for a nuclear bomb, which he currently estimates would take about six months or less. With a sufficient stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, the Iranians could potentially narrow the breakout time to about a month and half. The jump from Iran’s current level of uranium enrichment of less than 5 percent to 20 percent is a significant technical step, taking Tehran much closer to producing weapons-grade fuel.

“This is very troubling because there is no technical need for a civilian nuclear program to enrich uranium to 20 percent,” said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association. “They are clearly trying to increase their leverage in negotiations, but I think they are overstepping and risking the possibility that the [nuclear deal] can be saved.”

“What is going to be important is the pace,” he added. “I would expect them to be calibrating the pace with the pace of talks with the Biden administration and [other key powers]. It has been our view that Iran is not racing towards the bomb, as the leader of nuclear-armed Israel claims. They are retaliating in a measured, reversible way.”

Following the Iranian announcement, Peter Stano, a spokesperson for the European Union, which is a party to the nuclear pact, expressed concern that the move constituted a “considerable departure from Iran’s nuclear commitments under the [Iran nuclear deal] with serious nuclear non-proliferation implications.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that “Iran’s decision to continue violating its commitments, to raise the enrichment level & advance the industrial ability to enrich uranium underground, can’t be explained in any way except as continued realization of its intention to develop a military nuclear program.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview with Bloomberg News on Monday, warned that Iran was stepping up its aggressive behavior in the Middle East to put pressure on the incoming Biden administration.

“As they now think they may have a president come into office that will do a deal with them again, they’re going to raise their level of activity to threaten. And so that the Europeans and the United States will once again kowtow and enter into a deal with them that presents them with enormous opportunity in America and the Gulf States with real risk,” he said.

In the final weeks of the Trump administration, U.S. officials said they are remaining on high alert for some form of confrontation with Iran, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the U.S. strike that killed one of Iran’s most powerful and influential military commanders, Qassem Suleimani.

The Trump administration has preemptively ordered a drawdown in U.S. personnel from the embassy in Iraq and sent a pair of B-52 bombers over the Persian Gulf in a show of force—part of an ongoing effort to deploy assets into the region since the United States reimposed lapsed sanctions from the Iran nuclear deal.

On Monday, Trump ordered the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its carrier strike group to return to the Middle East, countermanding acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller’s decision to bring the group home. That same day, Iran seized a South Korean oil tanker in the Persian Gulf in a further escalation of tensions. Iranian authorities said the seizure was related to environmental pollution. But the move, which may also be meant to pressure Seoul to release embargoed Iranian funds, coincided with signs that Iran was building up its naval presence in the region, and inside and outside the Trump administration, current and former officials warned that the United States would be ready to push back in case of an attack.

“Iran has the ability to disrupt the flow of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab, and that disruption could significantly damage the global economy,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East during the Trump administration and now an ABC News analyst.

“If they intend to attack U.S. forces, they can be confident that our military will be ready to defend itself and respond with overwhelming force. Iran testing that would be a mistake.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch