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Making sense of Iran's nuclear moves

The Hill logo The Hill 10/8/2019 Behnam Ben Taleblu, opinion contributor
a small boat in a body of water: Making sense of Iran's nuclear moves © Getty Making sense of Iran's nuclear moves

Things are about to get worse on the Iran nuclear front. That's essentially what Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei promised in a speech on Wednesday before commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country's most infamous military force. Per Khamenei, Iran is slated to continue reducing its adherence to the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), until "the desired result" is achieved.

Khamenei's comments help frame recent technical developments, confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, about Iran's latest nuclear violations. The country is now using advanced centrifuges, fragile machines that spin at high speeds, to enrich uranium. Uranium is a radioactive element that, if its isotopes are separated and some enriched to a higher level of purity, can constitute weaponized fissile material for a potential nuclear weapon. Earlier in September, an Iranian government spokesman had warned that Iran would grow its nuclear research and development aptitudes by installing and testing a series of advanced centrifuges.

In May, one year after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iranian officials announced that every 60 days they would engage in nuclear-related activities prohibited by the accord. Already, Tehran has thrice surpassed limits found in the deal. The U.S., in response, has grown the scale and scope of its penalties against the Islamic Republic.

A closer look at Iran's breaches of the JCPOA, however, reveals that despite sanctions pressure, the regime is not looking to promptly withdraw from the accord, nor dash to make a weapon. Rather, Iran is incrementally escalating its nuclear program under the auspices of a deliberate strategy. Here's why.

Incremental nuclear escalation as a strategy of persuasion

Iran's recent installation and use of advanced centrifuges breaches the JCPOA's associated centrifuge research and development plan. Since Iran is now testing machines that can do more, faster, it can lay the technical groundwork for their full reintroduction if Khamenei's "desired result" is not met. Moreover, because of how small the machines are, they would be easy to relocate and hide, and thus could be integral to any potential covert program or nuclear breakout effort.

Previous Iranian breaches, however, have not been related to adding advanced centrifuges. In May, Iran reported that it was going to accumulate more low-enriched uranium (at 3.67 percent purity) and heavy water (which is a moderator in one of its reactors) than the JCPOA allowed. In July, Iran grew the purity of its domestic stockpile of low-enriched uranium to reportedly just under 5 percent, and also exceeded the JCPOA-mandated cap on that uranium.

By crossing certain thresholds at a low-level, Tehran can slowly chip away at the JCPOA's constraints, such as its promised one-year breakout timeline, an estimate of time needed for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon. These violations represent a concerted political strategy aimed at increasing risks and raising doubt over the nuclear program's future and gradually more threatening, direction. These heightened risks aim to incentivize responsible international actors to persuade Iran not to further back out from the JCPOA. If the risks are insufficient to elicit action, they are grown.

Iran's evolving response to maximum pressure

Washington's policy of escalating economic pressure was designed to compel Iran to return to the negotiating table for a better deal. Under the first year of what the Trump administration called the "maximum pressure" campaign, Iran chose to largely abide by the caps imposed on its nuclear program despite the U.S.'s restoration of penalties waived by the accord. Tehran initially scoffed and underestimated the resulting efficacy of Washington's economic measures.

In a year's time, Iran's economy buckled. The success of the sanctions shifted Iran's approach from patience - merely trying to outlast the Trump administration and absorb sanctions pain - to escalation, in order to offset pressure. While incremental, this escalation would provide Tehran the necessary leverage to try to change Washington's approach or at least deal with it from a position of strength.

That is why since May, Iran has not just been escalating in the nuclear domain, but across a whole host of other areas where Washington has identified Tehran's policies as problematic. This includes cyberspace, missiles (through tests, operations, and transfers), and regional theaters of competition (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf) where the regime's myriad proxies and partners are active. By increasing tensions, Iran is trying to pressure Washington into offering premature sanctions relief, the end-result of which would be Washington returning to its commitments under the JCPOA.

Such a strategy requires Iran to have a modicum of international support, which is why their officials talk about the reversibility of their actions, frame their nuclear non-compliance as permitted under the JCPOA, as much as they mention the specter of what else is to come.

It is also why Iran has thus far refrained from - despite threatening to - resume uranium enrichment at 20 percent purity. This move united the trans-Atlantic community against Iran in 2010 and could bridge the trans-Atlantic gap that exists on Iran policy today. So long as Iranian nuclear escalation remains incremental and below certain thresholds, Iran's European supporters have an incentive to fight to keep the JCPOA, and not turn their rhetoric into anything substantive. Conversely, an Iranian move to exceed 20 percent enrichment should be read as a game-changer.

Lastly, Iran's pre-planned timetable for escalation, every 60 days, affords Tehran, rather than Washington, the opportunity to drive and shape the direction of the crisis through a steady drip and not a deluge. This is a scenario not unlike when Washington was in the nuclear deal but faced deadlines to continue waiving sanctions. These waiver deadlines became highly public junctures - if not referendums - on U.S.-Iran policy that likely played into Washington's ultimate walkout from the accord. But now, rather than looking solely to the U.S. on the sanctions front, governments, banks, businesses, analysts, and all other interested parties will have to look to Tehran to determine the next act in the escalating drama.

Why does Iran want the JCPOA?

Understanding the logic behind Iran's incremental nuclear escalation necessarily requires understanding Iran's attachment to the JCPOA. The JCPOA had a significant security dividend for Tehran. It offered Iran a framework that took a previously illicit nuclear program, restricted it briefly, made it licit, and allowed for its expansion with the passage of time. Seen in this light, such a framework that eliminates the primary predicate for international pressure against Tehran will necessarily be fought for. And that means Iran will continue violating the accord in order to pressure Washington - under this administration or the next - into keeping or perhaps even expanding it, on Iran's terms, of course.

Undoubtedly, Iran avoided a balance of payments crisis in 2013 by entering into nuclear negotiations, and from 2014-2016, saw positive changes in its economy because of engagement and the nuclear deal. But it would be a mistake to see the JCPOA as a mere on-ramp for Iran back into the international economy. After all, as the founding father of the Islamic Republic said, the Revolution "wasn't about the price of watermelons."

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), where he focuses on Iranian political and security issues. He frequently briefs Washington audiences on a host of Iran-related issues and has testified before the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.

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