Iran set off national security alarm bells on Tuesday morning after its government announced that it would begin injecting gas into the centrifuges at Fordow, an underground nuclear facility built to withstand U.S. airstrikes.
“We know it’s possible they’ll make a fuss,” said Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. “However, whenever they fulfill their obligations, this step of ours will be reversible.”
It was a blow to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which was supposed to force Iran to accept a “better deal” than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regulating its nuclear program. But the Iranian action was also a blow to the JCPOA itself, making it harder to walk back into the 2015 international deal.
The JCPOA, signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and five other world leaders, stated that “Iran will refrain from any uranium enrichment and uranium enrichment [research and development] and from keeping any nuclear material at Fordow for 15 years.” Instead, the mountain laboratory was supposed to become “a nuclear, physics and technology center” for producing “stable isotopes” that cannot be used as nuclear fuel.
By injecting uranium hexafluoride gas into the centrifuges at Fordow, Iran is breaking a key part of the deal—and beginning the process to enrich uranium, which can be used as nuclear fuel.
In fact, Iranian nuclear energy head Ali Akbar Salehi recently announced during a press conference unveiling a new line of uranium centrifuges that Iran had accumulated over 1,700 kilograms of enriched uranium, nearing its pre-JCPOA level of 2,300 kilograms.
“Iran has no credible reason to expand its uranium enrichment program. It is a clear attempt at nuclear extortion that will only deepen its political and economic isolation,” a U.S. State Department official told the National Interest. “Secretary [Mike] Pompeo has made clear that the right amount of uranium enrichment for the world’s top sponsor of terrorism is zero. We will continue to impose maximum pressure on the regime until it abandons its destabilizing behavior, including proliferation-sensitive work.”
“It’s unclear from Iran’s announcement . . . the extent to which this will impact Iran’s breakout time,” said Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. Davenport was referring to the time it would take to build a nuclear weapon. “It does impose a greater risk compared to Iran’s earlier violations,” she said.
Davenport also noted that Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Association and is allowing them to monitor the move. “That implies that Iran is signaling that it isn’t dashing for a nuclear weapon and that it’s willing to reverse this step if the U.S. comes back into compliance with the JCPOA,” Davenport told the National Interest.
“[Fordow] is symbolic because it is something beyond even the military capability of the U.S.,” said Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft executive vice president Trita Parsi. Iran built the Fordow facility deep inside the mountains because of Bush-era debates over whether to attack the enrichment facility at Natanz, he claimed.
Natanz, built along a major highway, is exposed to an air attack. Fordow, built in a former military facility deep in the mountains, is much easier to defend.
“The fact that the Fordow facility even exists is proof of how flawed the JCPOA is,” claimed Foundation for the Defense of Democracies senior fellow Behnam Ben Taleblu.
Taleblu told the National Interest that Iran has been able to take advantage of American and European fears of the Islamic Republic “enriching uranium in a bunker” to maximize its leverage. He added that “Iran’s entire strategy” has “taken advantage of the JCPOA’s flexibility in meeting a violation with a violation.”
This possibility was baked into the nuclear deal itself. Article 26 of the JCPOA says that Iran can treat economic sanctions from the European Union or the United States “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.”
But the more commitments both sides break, the less relevant the deal becomes.
“Iran’s assertions that all these escalatory steps are reversible are false: the knowledge Iran could gain over time from such [research and development] work represents irreversible learning that could ultimately shorten Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon if it decided to pursue one,” the State Department claimed.
“Today we are in a situation of oppressive, erroneous, and illegal sanctions,” Rouhani said. His government has previously broken JCPOA limits three times, vowing to continue until maximum pressure is lifted.
Iran had stuck with the JCPOA after the United States first broke the deal in May 2018, but took a much harder line after the Trump administration announced it was trying to cut off all Iranian oil exports in April 2019.
That summer, Iranian forces allegedly attacked oil shipping off its coast and outright seized a British tanker. President Donald Trump ordered a military attack on southern Iran in July but called it off at the last minute.
Then, on September 14, drones and missiles destroyed an oil desulfurization plant in Saudi Arabia, and an Iranian-backed faction in Yemen claimed responsibility. Trump threatened retaliation, but after a domestic backlash, he refrained from pointing the finger at Iran.
Iranian authorities have also been stepping up their nuclear activities once every sixty days, noted Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group. In May, they increased their stockpile of low-enriched uranium and heavy water, which could be used for nuclear reactors. In July, they began enriching uranium at higher levels, making it easier to use as fuel. And in September, they began testing advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium more quickly.
“The Iranian response came later and in a much more segmented way than many people predicted,” Parsi said. “They don’t want to be in a situation in which you’ve amassed all these sanctions, and Iran hasn’t done anything” to build its own leverage when the United States comes back to the table.
“None of the actions taken thus far pose a near-term proliferation risk,” Davenport emphasized. “The continued presence of international inspectors indicates that Tehran is still willing to negotiate and is looking for a diplomatic solution that restores the JCPOA.”
It remains to be seen whether there is political will on either side to do so.
The maximum pressure campaign was back in full swing in time for the fortieth anniversary of Iranian revolutionaries’ infamous raid on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. On October 31, the Department of State announced that it was designating “the construction sector of Iran as being controlled directly or indirectly by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
Because the Trump administration had designated the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group in April, it was now illegal to export construction materials to Iran.
Last week, the United States agreed to uphold civil nuclear waivers that allowed Iran to continue non-enrichment activities at Fordow and other plants. Republicans are now looking to remove those waivers.
“Those who believe that negotiations with the enemy will solve our problems are 100% wrong,” said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who heads Iran’s unelected religious establishment and can block some of the elected government’s decisions, on Monday.
Rouhani, however, shot back in his Tuesday speech with a warning about a nondiplomatic solution.
“Resistance is accomplished through work, endeavor, and negotiation,” he said in his speech announcing the resumption of nuclear activities at Fordow. “Not just with slogan of ‘resistance, resistance.’”
“We resisted on the battlefield for eight years. How many years did we negotiate?” Rouhani added, referring to the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. “I went to Iraq to negotiate with the Iraqi authorities over one of the effects of a war that ended thirty-one years ago.”
Matthew Petti is a national security reporter at the National Interest and a former Foreign Language Area Studies Fellow at Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Armenian Weekly, Reason and America Magazine.