In a report published on 9 June 2022, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that Iran has increased its level of uranium enrichment to 20% by feeding a group of 166 IR-6 centrifuges with uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 5%. Behruz Kamalvandi, the spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said on July 10 that the new escalatory step falls within the framework of the AEOI’s legitimate duties. He stressed the step would include 1,000 IR-6 centrifuges, in an indication that the move is in line with the law passed by Iran’s Shura Council (Parliament) on 29 November 2020 entitled "Strategic Action Plan to Lift Sanctions." The law obliges the government to take further steps to reduce the level of obligations in the nuclear agreement in response to United States (US) sanctions.
A Lurking Danger
It can be said that the most important step taken by Iran is not increasing the enrichment level to 20%, but rather using more advanced IR-6 centrifuges to do so. More precisely, increasing the enrichment level to 20% does not add anything new to Iranian escalation, considering that Iran already produced large quantities of this level in the past. From this point of view, what happened is considered a fait accompli.
What is most significant on Iran’s part is the use of IR-6 devices in the latest process. Behruz Kamalvandi said 20% enriched uranium was collected through this type of centrifuge for the first time. Here, the message is clear: Iran is able to significantly accelerate its nuclear activities in the coming phase if it wants to do so, or if it makes a political decision in this regard. Hence, the reasons for the IAEA’s concern about the latest step can be explained. The agency considered the move as threatening to make a leap in Iran’s nuclear activities in the next stage, especially if negotiations between Iran and major powers, particularly the US, see further stumbles.
Iran taking this step at this time can be explained through several considerations, most notably:
1. Sending a message of defiance prior to Biden’s visit to the region: The latest move can be considered the third escalatory step taken by Iran since the announcement of US President Joe Biden’s tour of the Middle East from July 13-16. The first step was the pursuit of two US Navy ships for approximately an hour by three Iranian boats in the Strait of Hormuz on June 20, which the US Navy described as "unsafe and unprofessional."
The second step was related to Iran’s announcement, on June 26, of the launch of a rocket, which it called Zoljanah, into space. The message here is that Iran does not pay much attention to the pressures exerted by the US in the nuclear agreement. Nor does it pay attention to the facts President Biden’s visit to the region could impose, especially amid increasing talk of collective security arrangements in the region, which Iran sees as its main target.
2. Threatening escalation after the failure of the Doha talks: Although Iran said the indirect talks it held with the US through European mediation in Doha on June 28-29 were positive, this was met with categorical US denial. Washington said the talks failed, and that Iran did not present anything new in them. Rather, it insisted on putting forward demands outside the nuclear agreement, referring to Iran’s demands for guarantees that the US will not once more withdraw from the nuclear agreement, as well as for the removal of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) from the list of terrorist organizations. In this context, it should be noted that Iran is always keen to take escalatory steps after negotiations stall, considering them a mechanism to exert stronger pressure on international powers, especially Western countries headed by the US.
3. Strengthening the chances of reaching a deal on the nuclear issue: Tehran believes escalation can help strengthen the chances of reaching a new deal on the nuclear issue, contrary to the numerous speculations promoted in this regard. It believes that threatening to raise the level of nuclear activities and achieving a qualitative leap in them could push the administration of US President Joe Biden to offer concessions in order to avoid Iran continuing down this path, especially regarding the US stance on the IRGC. Iran believes it is difficult for the US administration to provide guarantees that it will not withdraw from the agreement again, mainly given constitutional considerations. Responding to the demand to remove the IRGC from the list of terrorist organizations means, first of all, that efforts to reach a settlement and a deal have come a long way, and almost ended in success.
Iran has started sending a parallel message, indicating it is ready to resume talks in the coming period. The head of Iran’s delegation, Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Ali Bagheri Kani, said on July 3 that consultations with the talks’ European coordinator, Enrique Mora, to determine the time and place to hold a new round, are almost at their final stage. On July 6, Tehran received Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, whose country hosted the latest round of talks. Kani also visited the Sultanate of Oman one day later. As a whole, these moves indicate that regional, and especially Gulf, mediations continue to resume talks and perhaps reach a new deal.
4. Securing various nuclear activities against adversaries: The importance and seriousness of Iran’s latest step increases in light of it being done inside the Fordow facility, not the Natanz facility as usual. The main goal of that is to protect nuclear activities from the successive security breaches Iran has been subjected to in the past period. Notably, while Natanz was hit by two sabotage attacks in July 2020 and April 2021, Fordow has not been subjected to any attack, given tight security measures imposed inside it, as well as it being underground.
That may indicate that Iran does not rule out that it will face more security breaches in the coming phase, despite measures it took to change some key leaders of the intelligence services, such as Hussein Taib, the head of the IRGC Intelligence Organization. In Tehran’s view, Israel will not hesitate to exploit any opportunity to disrupt various nuclear activities, given its capabilities.
Taken as a whole, the above carries the important inclination that, if the negotiations between Iran and the US stumble, it will drive the former to raise the level of its escalatory steps. This could reach an unprecedented threat level, especially since Iran believes it has now assumed a stronger position in negotiations. It suggests that Iran’s interactions with regional developments will be characterized by greater tension in the coming phase, which will see many political and strategic milestones, especially after the end of President Biden’s tour on July 16.