The Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks on the occasion of the anniversary of the Qom protests in 1978 in Tehran, Iran on January 8, 2021 via a live broadcast on state television.

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Iran’s latest move, in breach of the 2015 nuclear deal, has drawn the attention of international powers and increased push for a return to the multi-country deal as it calls for the lifting of US sanctions.

The United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), last week confirmed a report that Iran had started producing uranium metal. This move goes against the parameters of the 2015 agreement – also known as the JCPOA – that lifted curb sanctions on Iran to its nuclear program.

Unriched uranium metal has little civil utility and is different from enriched uranium, which can be used for nuclear power.

Iran says its activity will produce fuel for a research reactor. The IAEA inspectors confirmed a marginally small volume of 3.6 grams (0.1 ounces) of the substance in a facility in Isfahan – less than the size of a thimble.

For some in the international community, however, this is alarming as a greater amount of the metal – around half a kilogram, according to experts – can be used to build the core of an atomic bomb.

An annotated satellite image of the construction in the Iranian uranium enrichment plant Natanz with analysis by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.

Photo: Planet Labs Inc. | AP

“This is one of the most serious nuclear moves they have taken,” a former Obama administration official who was involved in the original JCPOA negotiations told CNBC, referring to Iran. “It’s pretty provocative.” The former official spoke on condition of anonymity due to job restrictions in speaking to the press.

Britain, France and Germany, all supporters of the JCPOA, said in January that Iran “has no credible civilian use for uranium metal”. They described the news as “deeply worrying”.

“Uranium metal production could have serious military implications,” they warned.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the statement made by Europeans was significant.

“You know you will be in trouble if the Europeans do not buy the Tehran argument of ‘civilian use’. That should ring alarm bells,” he said.

Incremental rollbacks

Iran has been gradually scaling back its compliance with the JCPOA since May 2019, a year after the Trump administration withdrew from the deal and began to impose severe “maximum pressure” sanctions on the country for its designated destabilizing regional activities.

Tehran’s actions most recently included increasing uranium enrichment and inventories beyond the limits set in the agreement in order to pressure Washington to lift the sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy and return to the agreement, which the Biden administration did has expressed his desire to do.

It is important that Iranian officials stress that the steps are reversible and have raised hopes of a return to the agreement under Biden. However, the White House says Iran must first regain full compliance with the deal, while Iran says that US sanctions must be lifted first in order to create a possible stalemate.

“It’s reversible”

However, regional experts believe that the nuclear deal can still be saved.

Iran “is trying to underline the importance of it being re-admitted to the JCPOA,” said the former Obama official. “I don’t think this will undermine the possibility of a return to the JCPOA, but it is worrying.”

Aniseh Tabrizi, Senior Research Fellow and Iran expert at the Royal United Services Institute, agreed.

“It’s reversible, especially when done in the short term,” she said of uranium metal production in Iran. “There has been a condemnation but no signal that this is the end of an attempt to revive talks on the JCPOA.”

Meanwhile, “Iran has the ability to put significant short-term pressure on the other signatories to the agreement,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East-North Africa program at Chatham House, a UK think tank.

“But in the long run,” she said, “the United States must be involved in joint commission discussions,” because the United States is central to the agreement and sanctions relief for Iran.

An important date is February 21. At this point, new hardline laws passed by the Iranian parliament will come into effect, including a decision preventing further inspections by the IAEA. However, according to Vakil, it is crucial that the crisis be contained before the June elections in Iran.

“If the international community is genuinely interested in containing this crisis with Iran, it is important to put in place the JCPOA compliance strategy and a plan to meet with Iran and the joint commission,” she said. “The sooner they can do that, the better they can somehow mitigate Iran’s further efforts to increase the stakes.”

For FDD’s Ben Taleblu, Iran’s tactics have so far been both dangerous and pointless. “Tehran’s ongoing nuclear escalation means its new violations are necessarily more dangerous,” he said. “Despite Iran’s escalation strategy, neither the Trump nor the Biden team have reversed course on major economic sanctions.”