Iran announced Monday that it had increased its uranium enrichment and advanced the development of the ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon within six months.
The resumption of enrichment to 20 percent was the last in a series of escalations that followed President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from a 2015 nuclear deal that restricted Iran to enrichment levels of 4 to 5 percent.
An Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told the state news agency IRNA on Monday that President Hassan Rouhani had ordered the implementation of a law passed last week to approve the new levels of enrichment.
“The process of producing 20 percent enriched uranium in the Fordow enrichment complex began a few minutes ago,” Rabiei told the semi-official Iranian news agency Mehr.
Fuel enriched to this level is not enough to make a bomb, but it is close. Going from current levels to 20 percent is far more difficult than going from Tat to the 90 percent purity traditionally used for bomb fuel.
The enrichment takes place in the newest Iranian nuclear facility Fordow, which is embedded deep in a mountain at a well protected base of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. A successful attack would require repeated attacks using the largest bunker bomb in the American arsenal.
The decision to increase uranium enrichment came as no surprise, but it was officially made after the murder of leading Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November, long identified by American and Israeli intelligence agencies as the leading figure in covert efforts to develop a nuclear warhead .
It also coincides with the first anniversary of the assassination of a distinguished military commander, Qassim Suleimani, in a United States missile attack.
Iranian officials have always maintained that their nuclear ambitions are for peaceful ends, not weapons. But they expressed anger and swore vengeance over the murder of atomic scientist Fakhrizadeh.
In December, Iranian lawmakers passed law ordering an immediate expansion of the uranium enrichment program and calling for international nuclear inspectors to be expelled if US sanctions were not lifted by early February, a direct challenge to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s new national security advisor, was optimistic that the 2015 nuclear deal could still be bailed out.
In a foreign affairs article published in May, Mr. Sullivan and Daniel Benaim, an advisor to Mr. Biden in the Middle East, argued when he was Vice President that the United States “should immediately restore nuclear diplomacy with Iran and save what it can from the 2015 nuclear deal ”and then work with allies and Iran“ to negotiate a follow-up deal ”.
When Sullivan appeared on CNN on Sunday, he said that once Iran resumed compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, there would be talks about its missile capabilities.
“In these broader negotiations we can ultimately set limits to Iranian ballistic missile technology,” said Sullivan, “and we want to try to achieve that through diplomacy.”
However, the missile program was not addressed in the previous agreement as the Iranians refused to restrict their development or testing.
And that assumes that the Iranians would be ready in any case to return to the terms of the 2015 agreement.