In January 2019, there were reports that Iran's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced that Iran was designing a modern process to enrich uranium up to 20 percent in its 50-year-old reactor. Salehi, according to a December 2018 report, had stated that Iran was ready to begin a 20-percent enrichment process at its Fordow nuclear facility. In 2015, under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran was eligible to enrich uranium only up to 3.7 percent for 15 years. But Salehi announced a concerning issue about Iran when he stated that Iran "would do the enrichment at any volume and level."
The United States had called off the 2015 nuclear deal and demanded a fresh deal. However, Salehi in September 2018, clearly stated, "If we have to go back and withdraw from the nuclear deal, we certainly will not go back to where we were before. We will be standing on a much, much higher position."
A new version of nuclear fuel would be capable of enhancing the efficiency of the reactor and Iran is also now capable of designing its own reactors that would suit its own needs. In September 2018, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had reportedly ordered to set up and complete a very advanced hall for the construction of modern centrifuges.
Salehi's claim that Iran would enrich uranium up to 20 percent is definitely a way for them to proceed further in their nuclear program. In fact, in August 2017 Salehi declared that Iran could start enriching uranium up to 20 percent within five days if it made a determined effort to do so. Already in June 2018, Iran was reported to have launched the UF-6 (uranium hexafluoride) production facility that was a step toward increasing its uranium enrichment capability. UF-6 is the raw material that is used to feed the centrifuges, which are used for enriching uranium.
Possessing the ability to enrich uranium up to 20 percent would also open ways for Iran to enrich uranium that would be weapons grade. One of the pressing issues of the post-nuclear deal period has been Iran's ongoing persistence on a missile development program. Iran already possesses sophisticated long-range ballistic and cruise missiles that are capable of delivering nuclear warheads as well as chemical and biological warheads and submunitions. Allowing Tehran to enrich uranium up to 20 percent would only result in the country furthering the capability of developing nuclear weapons. In fact, in June 2018, the Iranian government had already warned that it would develop a nuclear arsenal if the deal fell apart. Not only this, it would also start a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Saudi Arabia wants to possess nuclear technology for civil purposes but refuses to accept the U.S. "gold standard" of restricting enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. Hence, a nuclear deal with the United States has been a delayed process. If Tehran reaches the claimed amount of enrichment for uranium, Saudi Arabia would find it difficult to accept the U.S. gold standard.
In addition, countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Turkey, could also become high-risk nuclear power states. The UAE accepts the U.S. gold standard – the 123 Agreement – and refrains from enriching uranium, but it has always been skeptical of the nuclear deal that allowed Iran to enrich uranium up to 3.7 percent. The UAE ambassador to Washington had also stated once that the UAE no longer felt bound by the 123 Agreement which was a bilateral agreement between the United States and the UAE.
Moreover, enriching uranium for military purposes will be against the nuclear deal and in the future, the United States might find it difficult to persuade other states in the region to enter into such similar nuclear deals should states in the Middle East go nuclear.
Though Iran has stated that it had no desire to withdraw from the deal, any attempt to increase enrichment capacity would automatically lead to the nuclear deal becoming null and void.
Iran in June 2018, also warned that it would resort to an enrichment process on uranium, unless the European countries fail to uphold the nuclear deal. Therefore, the enrichment program is seen as a way to coerce Europe to stick to the nuclear deal by Iran.
The uranium enrichment program will only make the nuclear energy program in Iran more complicated as there may not be any future scope to discuss improvisation of the nuclear deal. In addition, Iran will be supported in its nuclear energy program by countries like China and Russia, which makes Iran care less about the U.S. moving away from the nuclear deal and despite the actions by U.S. President Donald Trump, Iran would most likely go ahead with the uranium enrichment program.
Though Iran is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has the right to pursue a nuclear energy program, its ability to enrich uranium up to 20 percent may in future lead to a stage where it enriches uranium that is weapons grade. Another threat to anti-agreement countries is Iran having close ties with Hezbollah – an asymmetric militant group that has close ties with Tehran. Iran already transfers weapons and missile systems to Hezbollah and hence, in the future, it could also transfer nuclear weapons or technological know-how to Hezbollah.
Iran's nuclear program, if not checked, will only move ahead to become a full-fledged nuclear program that can develop nuclear weapons in a short span of time.
* India-based freelance analyst