Iran's 3rd nuke violation steps back from brink - analysis

The gradual escalation from Iran indicates that they are still waiting, rather than going full speed with their nuclear program.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walks to deliver a speech during the Conference of Government’s Achievements in Developing Rural Infrastructure in Tehran, Iran, August 26, 2019.  (photo credit: PRESIDENT.IR/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walks to deliver a speech during the Conference of Government’s Achievements in Developing Rural Infrastructure in Tehran, Iran, August 26, 2019.
Iran blinked.
There were threats this week that its third announced violation of the 2015 nuclear deal would be a major escalation, maybe even a move to enrich uranium to the 20% level.
But a major escalation was canceled.
Announcements by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, regardless of their framing the violations as accelerations of the nuclear program, made it clear that the third violation will be gradual, just like the first two in May and July. This was emphasized by the imposing of a new deadline of early November for a fourth planned violation, in the event that there is no new deal based on a compromise suggested by France.
The most likely new gradual violation Tehran has discussed is activating more IR-6 and IR-8 advanced centrifuges.
While this sounds ominous, Olli Heinonen, former deputy director-general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency, has told The Jerusalem Post that Iran does not have sufficient numbers of these designs to make a major difference.
Rather, the bigger threat and violation would be enriching uranium to the 20% level, up from around 5%, or reinstalling a large number of IR-2m centrifuges.
Unlike the IR-6 and IR-8, Iran could install 1,000 new IR-2m centrifuges in a short time, and jumping to 20% Iranian enrichment radically shortens the time to nuclear breakout.
All of this signals Iran blinking – at least for now.
Interestingly, Al Jazeera released a video on Thursday, purportedly of a tour of the inside of the Tehran Nuclear Research Center, which has a decades-old five-megawatt nuclear reactor.
Al Jazeera’s report said that the reactor would eventually need 20% enriched uranium in order to continue to function for providing certain medical benefits.
But crucially, the video did not say that Iran would start enriching uranium to 20% in this round of violations.
At the same time, former deputy chief of IDF Intelligence Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser told the Post that this video could very well be Iran laying the groundwork for committing the much more serious violation of the nuclear deal in November.
So Iran blinked and kicked the can down the road.
For one, as soon as it moves to enriching to the 20% level, it knows that it puts itself in the crosshairs of Israel or the US for a preemptive strike.
But there is also the French proposal.
According to France’s proposal, the EU would extend Iran a $15b. credit line, the US would at least temporarily restore select waivers to its oil sanctions while not removing the sanctions completely, and Iran would return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The continuous contradictory messages from Iran about the French compromise idea make clear only one thing: that Iran has not decided whether it wants to accept it or reject it.
Kicking the can down the road, while incrementally escalating its nuclear violations, is consistent with what Iran did for its May and July deadlines.
It started to violate the 2015 nuclear deal a bit more, but not in a way that would move it rapidly closer to obtaining a nuclear bomb and potentially force Israel’s hand to strike.
Simultaneously, it kept diplomatic channels open for a deal.
The Islamic Republic also sent mixed messages in the past on what it would be willing to settle.
To be sure, Tehran is getting more desperate.
This week was the first time since the 2015 nuclear deal that Iran was openly saying it may ignore requests from both the IAEA and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
Already on July 11, it was reported that the IAEA was sitting on evidence that Iran had hidden radioactive materials from the IAEA at the nuclear site Turquzabad, but that it had failed to clean up well enough, leaving traces that IAEA inspectors uncovered.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Iran was ignoring requests from the IAEA to clarify what appeared to be a cover-up of radioactive material.
This, despite some critics accusing the IAEA of being too lenient with its inspections of Iran, while the Islamic republic had been careful to pay lip-service to cooperating with IAEA inspections.
Meanwhile, an Iranian spokesman last week publicly repudiated FATF demands that Tehran approve certain legal changes to comply with international standards for combating money-laundering and terror-financing.
FATF, a powerful financial oversight group which can limit a country’s access to the international banking system, gave Iran in June an October deadline to carry out a list of compliance actions.
Once again, Iran had continued to move forward gradually toward complying, even if it never did everything the FATF asked. Sunday was the first time that Iran said it would just ignore the FATF.
All of this shows that Iran is closer to spoiling for a fight.
But closer is not the same as being ready, and Iran’s proposal seems to be causing an internal split in Iran about the next move.
Rouhani repeatedly praised diplomacy this week as an equal tool to achieving national goals along with using hard power.
As there is no deal this week, there will likely be no Rouhani-Trump meeting at the UN this month, and Iran did incrementally increase its violations.
But all of this is the sub-headline to the headline of Iran blinking and giving the French proposal two more months to bear fruit.