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January 6, 2021

Middle East Roundup: Iran Enriching Uranium at 20% & Military Buildup in Persian Gulf

This week, Iran restarted enriching uranium at the 20% level after a bill passed by parliament, which forced the move, was finally implemented. Also, a military build up from the U.S. in the Persian Gulf coincided with the one year anniversary of the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Please see our breakdown and analysis of events below: 

Iran Increases its Uranium Enrichment to 20% At Fordow

  • Rouhani Administration Forced into Enrichment Following Parliamentary Bill
    • In a tweet on Monday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that “We resumed 20% enrichment, as legislated by our Parliament. IAEA has been duly notified.” He went on to say that “our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.” Iranian state television also quoted spokesman Ali Rabiei, the administration’s spokesman, as saying that President Hassan Rouhani had given the order for 20% enrichment to begin at the Fordow facility.

    • Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Araghchi said that if “other parties return into compliance, we will review the move and return to our commitments under the JCPOA,” and highlighted that “20% enrichment can be reversed in a short time.”

    • While uranium enriched up to 20% Uranium-235 is lower than weapons-grade uranium, as the purity becomes higher the pathway to weapons-grade becomes shorter. Iran enriched at the near-20% level prior to the 2013 interim nuclear deal, but stopped during the deal’s implementation and held off enriching at that level throughout the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.

    • Enrichment at this level occurred weeks after a bill was passed by Iran’s parliament that requires the government to increase both its uranium stockpile and the enrichment level. The Rouhani government opposed the passage of the bill for fear that it would complicate a mutual return to compliance by the U.S. and Iran to the JCPOA.

    • The administration seemingly accelerated its plans to enrich at 20% after Rouhani’s Vice President said last week that Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization will need to produce a report on the financial & technical requirements for 20% enrichment 2 months before the process would begin. This was originally seen as a stalling tactic to delay the implementation of the bill.

    • However, Rouhani seems to have lost the procedural battle between his administration and parliament, forcing his administration to enrich at this level faster than he would have liked. 

Key Takeaways

  • The increase to 20% is an escalatory step, but like all of Iran’s steps since Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal, it is reversible and should not jeopardize a mutual return to compliance to the JCPOA. After the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran either sold its 20% uranium on international markets, down-blended the excess, exported it to Russia, or fabricated it into fuel for Iran’s research reactor, which creates medical isotopes. Iran can do the same thing with the 20% uranium it accumulates between now and when Biden returns to the deal. Moreover, since it will take months for Iran to accumulate a concerning amount of uranium enriched at 20%, this move does not create an immediate proliferation risk.

  • The choice of enriching at 20% at Fordow seems telling on how the administration may use the parliamentary bill to their advantage. The law did not stipulate where the administration must begin enriching at 20%, therefore the decision to begin at Fordow, a facility built deep underground, was made by the Rouhani administration.  There may be technical reasons for enriching at Fordow, but restarting 20% enrichment at the site will exacerbate concerns given the securitized nature of the site.

  • The administration’s criticisms of the law seem genuine since the bill reduced Rouhani’s flexibility in relations to Biden, allows parliament to take credit for potentially bringing the US back into compliance with the deal, and diminishes his power over the nuclear file. By writing the bylaws in a certain way, he had hoped to delay the most sensitive aspects of the parliamentary bill, including 20% enrichment. But having now lost that fight, he will look to leverage the law to pressure Biden to restore the JCPOA while pushing back on the Trump administration’s escalations in the region surrounding the anniversary of Soleimani’s assassiantion. 

Military Buildup in Lead up to Soleimani Assassination Anniversary; Tensions Remain High

  • Pentagon Orders USS Nimitz Back But then Reverses Order
    • Jan. 3 marked the first anniversary of the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The days leading up to it saw a major escalation of U.S. force posture in the region. Soleimani was one of Iran’s most revered public figures and Muhandis led one of Iraq’s most powerful militias. Both Iran and Iraqi militias have called for revenge beyond Iran’s retaliatory strike on U.S. bases in Iraq a week after the assassinations.

    • The Pentagon deployed the aircraft carrier Nimitz into the Persian Gulf in late November. However, on the eve of the anniversary of Soleimani’s killing, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller gave an order to send the carrier home from the Middle East over the objections of top military advisers.

    • Oddly, he then reversed his order on Sunday Jan. 2 and said in a statement that he had “ordered the USS Nimitz to halt its routine redeployment.” The carrier will now “remain on station in the US Central Command area of operations,” Miller added. “No one should doubt the resolve of the United States of America.”

    • Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of American forces in the Middle East, asked the Pentagon to extend the deployment of the Nimitz to help counter what military intelligence analysts considered a growing and imminent threat. But senior Defense Department officials acknowledge they could not tell if Iran or its Shia proxies in Iraq were readying to strike American troops or were preparing defensive measures in case Mr. Trump orders a pre-emptive attack against them.
    • The US also flew B-52 bombers over the Gulf three times in the past month, most recently on Wednesday, Dec. 30., in what the Trump administration called a deterrence measure to keep Iran from retaliating. Also, for the first time in nearly a decade, the U.S. Navy ordered a Tomahawk-missile-firing submarine into the Persian Gulf as part of its posturing. 

    • Over the last few weeks and months, IRGC Quds Force Commander Esmail Qaani has met militia and political leaders in Iraq in an effort to scale back the rocket attacks from Iraqi militias that have peppered the Green Zone in Baghdad since the assassinations. Iran has told its allies to avoid provoking tensions with the U.S. that could give an outgoing Trump administration cause to launch attacks in the U.S. president’s final weeks in office and spark a wider conflict. 

Key Takeaways

  • While no events occurred on the day of the anniversary, tensions will remain elevated until Trump leaves office. Iran had been signaling for months to both its allies, and through the press to the U.S., that it does not want a war to break out. While Trump may want to avoid triggering a costly war, the hawks that surround him and Iran’s regional adversaries have done their utmost to stoke tensions.

  • Also, analysis that suggests Iran has complete control over its partners in Iraq is misguided. In one example, a few days after reports emerged that Qaani was in Iraq to reign in the rocket attacks, another barrage hit the green zone a few days later. Therefore while a reduction in tensions is in Iran’s strategic interest, there are moments when those do not align with factions in Iraq. Iran has always played the long game in seeking revenge against U.S. or Israeli actions, waiting for the right moment and time (see killing of nuclear scientists 2009 – 2012). Its allies may not share that level of discipline.

  • Ultimately, Iran has considerable sway over its partner’s decision making and was able to reduce the frequency of rocket attacks. But the militias themselves may have reason to conduct the attacks without Iran’s instruction. Muhandis was a crucial cog in Iraq’s military and political apparatus and many of Iraq’s most powerful militias were enraged at his killing. The Trump administration’s preemptive provocations, seemingly based on shaky intelligence, have escalated the likelihood of miscalculations and may tempt Iraq’s less professionalized factions to take matters into their own hands. 

 

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