Less than a day passed between the forecast by Israel’s director of Military Intelligence and the announcement by the Iranian government. On Monday, MI chief Aharon Haliva predicted that Iran would soon “toy with enriching” uranium to a level of 90 percent, which is sufficient to make a nuclear bomb.
Tuesday morning, Tehran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of a slightly more modest step – it will expand its efforts to enrich to the lower level of 60 percent. From now on, 60 percent enrichment will also take place at the Fordo facility, which is deep underground and far from any possible (and very hypothetical, at this point) airstrike by Israel or anyone else.
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The Iranian announcement came at the height of a particularly stormy time for the regime. For years, Israeli intelligence has argued that Tehran would be prepared to consider changing its policies only under a combination of factors – heavy international pressure, domestic problems and a serious military threat.
In those circumstances, the regime is often willing to consider what it terms “drinking from the poisoned cup” – conceding its principles for the sake of the greater goal of survival. That’s what happened when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini agreed to end the war with Iraq in 1988, when his successor froze Iran’s nuclear program following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and when Tehran began negotiating the original nuclear agreement in 2012 after being placed under harsh economic sanctions.
In recent years, the regime has faced almost no challenges that posed a real threat to its survival. The maximum pressure policy announced by former U.S. President Donald Trump after he withdrew from the nuclear agreement in 2018 didn’t achieve its goal of getting Iran to capitulate to Washington’s dictates.
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But recently, there have been some changes. The biggest turning point was domestic – the widespread and prolonged demonstrations (they have so far lasted more than two months) that began as a “hijab protest” and developed into a comprehensive challenge to the coercive rule of religious clerics. Minorities like the Kurds and Balochis have joined the challenge.
The combination of Tehran’s brutal efforts to suppress the unrest and its sale of armed drones to Russia for use in the latter’s war on Ukraine roused the West’s wrath against the regime. Earlier, there had been talk of resuming negotiations on a new nuclear deal after the U.S. midterm elections. But now, no target date is being set and Washington seems to have completely lost its appetite for the talks.
Moreover, even though it’s just signaling at the moment, it’s worth paying attention to the change in Israel’s rhetoric toward Iran. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, who is currently visiting Washington, said in conversations at the White House and the Pentagon this week that the nuclear issue has reached a critical point that requires Israel to accelerate its operational plans and its cooperation with America against Iran and its agents in the region.
But faced with all these pressures, the regime has chosen to respond by going in the opposite direction and adopting an even more hardline policy. Last week, Iran upped its threats against the protesters and arrested thousands of them. An Iranian drone exploded over a ship that was partly owned by an Israeli in the Gulf of Oman. And on Tuesday came the announcement about expanding its uranium enrichment.
Spurred by distress
Israel interprets these Iranian moves as responses spurred by distress. The leadership in Tehran is telling the international community not to test it by increasing external pressure on it while it’s dealing with the challenge of the protests.
The official pretext for the enrichment decision is that it’s a response to a recent IAEA Board of Governors’ resolution urging Iran to cooperate with the agency’s ongoing investigations into a series of previous Iranian nuclear violations. The dispute over these probes disrupted progress in the nuclear negotiations earlier this year.
But in reality, this seems to be a more significant symbol. It’s a high price tag for a fairly routine move by an international agency.
The new decision still keeps Iran below the threshold of enrichment for military purposes (90 percent). But it nevertheless entails several changes.
First, the enrichment to 60 percent at Fordo will be on top of the enrichment to this level already taking place at Natanz. Second, it will use the newer, faster IR-6 centrifuges. Third, as noted, Fordo is better protected against a military assault.
This is a clear challenge to the IAEA and Western powers, and it signals the possible next step Haliva mentioned – enriching to 90 percent. For the Iranians, that would be playing with fire, because it would presumably accelerate countermoves – primarily, the reimposition of all the international sanctions it was under before it signed the original nuclear deal in 2015. The European powers have deemed enrichment at that level a red line.
Meanwhile, however, Iran’s nuclear progress continues, slowly but surely (Tehran isn’t “racing” for a bomb, as Israeli spokespeople like to say). Its nuclear program is dispersed among several different sites, some of which are deep underground, and has been boosted by more effective means of production.
There’s a fairly broad consensus among Western intelligence agencies that if the Iranians decide to do so – Haliva claims they currently aren’t interested – they would need only a few weeks to enrich enough uranium to 90 percent to make a bomb. Then, they would need around two years to make a nuclear warhead that could fit on a ballistic missile.
Israel’s fear, which Haliva also voiced, is that the relative apathy with which the world has greeted Iran’s progress in enriching uranium will continue even if Tehran crosses the final red line and, despite its denials, begins developing a nuclear warhead.