Iran’s uranium enrichment rates, like the forecasts for when it will be capable of building a nuclear bomb, have since 2019 become a road map for interpreting Tehran’s intentions. So too was its announcement Tuesday that it has begun producing uranium enriched to 60 percent, far beyond the 3.67 percent limit imposed by the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Like its previous violations, which began about a year after the United States announced its withdrawal from the deal in 2019, this breach is being carried out in secret. Iran has notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of any planned violation, always adding that the move is not irreversible and that it is ready to return to the agreement if its conditions are met.
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Tuesday’s announcement comes as no surprise to anyone following the news from Iran: In April 2021, after the Natanz nuclear facility suffered damage that Tehran attributed to Israel, Iran said it planned to increase the purity level and to add 1,000 centrifuges to those already operating at Natanz.
In October, Reuters reported on a confidential IAEA report showing that in August Iran installed at Natanz the third of three cascades, or clusters, of advanced IR-6 centrifuges that could accelerate the production of 90-percent enriched uranium, after producing small amounts of 60-percent uranium at Natanz and Fordow. It could be that this time Iran intends to produce larger quantities of 60-percent uranium, but the important question is whether it will rise to a higher level or, as the head of Israel’s Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva put it, will Iran “toy with enrichment to 90 percent” – a level considered to be nuclear breakout time although it does not guarantee the ability to make and launch a nuclear bomb.
Not even Haliva can say whether Iran intends to build a nuclear bomb. “I estimate that at this point in time the leader believes this will cause damage to the regime, but the most stable thing here is the instability… For now the nuclear breakout does not serve the regime, but rather endangers it.” Such general assessments cannot serve as a basis for making policy and operational decisions.
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The confusion only grows when Haliva explains that he is “not convinced that a direct confrontation with [Iran] is the right thing at this point in time. It requires accelerating the building of forces in the IDF and the Mossad.” That is to say, not only is Iran not interested in a nuclear breakout, but Israel should not and cannot, at least at the moment, confront the country head on. This is a very significant statement that challenges the theory that Israel must present a credible military threat against Iran and even raises serious doubts about Israel’s ability to act alone if necessary and not see itself bound to a new nuclear deal if one is signed.
Haliva’s remarks are especially enlightening because they suggest the gap between the precise intelligence that Israel can gather on Iranian nuclear scientists, the location of nuclear facilities and the location of Iranian forces in Syria on one hand, and on the other hand, its ability to know or even to guess at Iran’s intentions. Moreover, it must be said that the intelligence community in Israel, and not only in Israel, failed to determine Iran’s intentions vis-a-vis the nuclear agreement. Initially they judged that the plan was to deceive and to play for time; this gave way to anxiety over the chances of success of the negotiations, and now the position that there’s no chance of an agreement has returned to the fore.
The same intelligence agencies did not know how the murder of Mahsa Amini – the young Iranian woman whose death sparked the current protests – would unfold. Nor do they know how the regime will respond in future to the demonstrations that have been going on since mid-September – and now they propose linking the protests to Iran’s positions on the nuclear deal or its real or imagined plans to attack Saudi Arabia or the World Cup in Qatar. Iranian officials warned Saudi Arabia against what they called interference in Iran’s domestic affairs, but they issued similar warnings to the United States, Britain, France and Israel, which they believe are fueling the protests in order to destabilize Iran.
Diverting attention away from the streets
But Tehran still says it wants to renew diplomatic relations with Riyadh, despite suspending talks with the Saudis in April. Even the insinuations about Iran’s plans to disrupt the soccer championship in order to divert attention and international pressure from what is happening in the streets of Iran’s cities require concrete proof, not just offhanded remarks. Fraying the close ties between Iran and Qatar, and dismantling their partnership in the world’s largest gas field, in the Persian Gulf, along with a series of economic cooperation agreements signed this year would be a very high price for Iran to pay if it attacks the World Cup, the pinnacle of Qatar’s international success.
According to statements by Iran’s senior leadership and the interpretations of the country’s media outlets, Tehran seems to be separating its nuclear program from the widespread violent protests that have already claimed about 300 lives. Iranian lawmakers are increasingly calling for reforms, albeit without specifying which ones. The regime’s response to the demonstrators is still depicted as “soft, “ ostensibly because the security forces “understand” that the protesters were incited and deceived by “external enemies.” But these words also contain an explicit threat that even more forceful and violent repression is around the corner.
At the same time, Iran still seems to be moving toward a new deal, even with its latest announcement on uranium enrichment: Tehran calls it a “sharp response” to the IAEA Board of Governors’ demand that it cooperate and provide information on unreported sites where traces of enriched uranium were discovered. This issue is one of the main obstacles to the new agreement. Iran’s actions may also be based on the U.S. position, according to which Iran has not walked away and is still trying to extract additional concessions. If that is the case, it means Tehran still sees the nuclear deal as a means to end the economic crisis that created and fueled the protest movement.