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Iran enrichment may hit 20% if impasse drags on

Iran could be on the way to upgrading its nuclear technology to industrial levels after suspending its nuclear deal obligations for the third time since May.

As prospects died for a face-to-face meet this week in New York between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and US President Donald Trump, European leaders continue to stress their intent to preserve the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018. 

Yet, with Washington out and Europe’s ability to deliver commitments to Tehran in doubt, questions remain over what exactly Iran will do next as part of a previous vow to take continued steps in breaching the deal.

Rouhani officially announced Sept. 5 his country's plan to scale back more commitments it had agreed to under the deal. The fresh measures, known as the "third step" in Iran, have to do with research and development — areas that had been significantly restricted under the 2015 accord.

Officially implemented Sept. 7, the new step, according to Rouhani, is meant to salvage the pact by speeding up talks between Tehran and the European signatories — France in particular.

"We took the first step [in May] and gave the [remaining JCPOA signatories] two months. Afterward, we gave them yet another two months as we took the second step," Rouhani said. "We did simultaneously maintain our negotiations, especially with the three European sides. But since we haven’t witnessed the desirable outcome, we will put into practice the third step as well.”

In the third phase, Iran seems to be considering long-term rather than immediate outcomes. The new limit-crossing can pave the way for Tehran to launch semi-industrial uranium enrichment and later, a full industrial-scale program. This would in turn yield capacity for another ambitious goal: enrichment of as much as 190,000 separative work units (SWUs) — the standard for the power needed to separate uranium isotopes in the enrichment process.

The goal had already been envisioned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei back in June 2018. In his directive to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Khamenei called on Iranian experts to start preparations to meet the target, albeit within the constraints of the nuclear deal.

Iran would have to meet crucial technological prerequisites before transcending that boundary. One task would be to transition from first-generation IR1 centrifuges, which are not economically viable for industrial-scale enrichment. According to an informed source at the AEOI, Iran’s third step entails adding — within two months — 2,500 SWUs to its existing enrichment power, pushing capacity to around 9,000.

"The key measure to be adopted during the period in question entails testing IR6 centrifuges, which appear in chains of 20 and enjoy an enrichment capability of up to 10 times larger than that of the ones currently spinning," the same source told Al-Monitor.

Despite the latest activities, Iran has not announced any final decision on increasing its enrichment level. Tehran took its “second step" July 7 by breaking the JCPOA’s 3.67% enrichment cap, pushing it to around 4.5%. That move raised expectations that the third step will see the rate jump to 20%.

During a July 8 interview, AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said a proposal for 20% was already on the table and had been debated by members of the country's powerful Supreme National Security Council.

"We don’t currently need the 20% enriched nuclear fuel. But if we want to gain it, we'll have no difficulty, since we are already beyond the 3.67% [JCPOA] limit. The issue of enrichment at 20% and more has been raised. Each step will be implemented in the appropriate time," he said.

However, by defiantly revealing the details of its third step, Iran seemed to be resending the signal to the European parties that its patience is running thin. In the meantime, Tehran is keeping the doors to diplomacy wide open and is pinning much hope on the initiative French President Emmanuel Macron is pursuing.

The AEOI spokesman also announced at a July 7 press conference in Tehran that Iran was feeding its more sophisticated IR6 machines with uranium hexafluoride gas, and that the launch of chains of 20 centrifuges was still on the agenda. Under the JCPOA, the Islamic Republic would have been allowed to carry out such activities only 11 years after the implementation of the 2015 accord.

In spite of all that, Tehran’s third step has given the other sides yet another two months to find out if they would honor their obligations by providing Iran with the JCPOA's promised economic relief. The two-month period may usher in vital developments that could particularly arise from the UN General Assembly session (Sept. 17-30), which Rouhani is attending in New York.

But the key question is whether a silver lining will appear from behind the ongoing diplomacy to put an end to the stalemate.

“The situation is rapidly getting complicated,” former Iranian diplomat Nosratollah Tajik said in an interview with Al-Monitor. "The Europeans are manipulated by the US. It is, therefore, unlikely that Iran's reduction of its commitments could change any of that.”

Tajik contends that Iran should not merely continue to suspend its obligations, it should also seek novel initiatives: ”We do perhaps need to work out further complementary plans in this regard.”

In August, Al-Monitor's Rohollah Faghihi broke the news from his anonymous sources that the Europeans were to offer Iran a $15 billion credit line as a way to help compensate for US sanctions on Iran’s oil sales. After being officially confirmed, the report revived hopes that a solution was on the horizon, before the ongoing standoff was exacerbated.

Nevertheless, Trump's self-contradictions, and the uncertainty over how far he may allow Macron to go, have raised further doubts about the success of the French initiative. On the other hand, while Trump has on multiple occasions expressed willingness for direct talks with Iran, the leadership in Tehran has stuck to its guns, conditioning dialogue on Washington’s return to the JCPOA, as well as a full removal of the sanctions Trump reimposed after abandoning the accord.

Current complexities continue to dim the prospects of any breakthrough, especially if no stride toward de-escalation is taken on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session. Tehran already has on hold its potential response to the failure of diplomacy: It may upgrade its uranium enrichment level to 20% and above. If Iran makes that decision, it could widen the existing split, making a resolution even more difficult.

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