Iran Must Pay a Price for its Nuclear Extortion

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has severely damaged the Islamic Republic’s economy, which has contracted almost 10% in the nearly two years since the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran has demanded continued trade and investment from Europe to help it weather its mounting international isolation but has refused to constructively address concerns over its lax counter-terrorism financing/anti-money laundering controls, regional destabilization, and advancement of its ballistic missile program. More alarmingly, Tehran has simultaneously undertaken a phased reduction of its nuclear commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), enriching uranium beyond the deal’s 3.67% limit, exceeding the 300 kg cap on its stockpiled enriched uranium, and introducing proscribed advanced centrifuges. Last week, Iran undertook the most provocative nuclear escalation to date, resuming uranium enrichment at the Fordow nuclear site. Europe must respond to this Iranian provocation by making clear that Iran will face costs for its nuclear extortion gambit.

Since the Trump administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and declined to reissue waivers allowing eight select countries to continue importing Iranian oil earlier this year, Iran has kicked its malign activities into overdrive. Tehran has used a two-pronged approach focused on stirring up trouble in the region – launching provocative attacks on energy infrastructure and freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf – while concurrently violating its nuclear obligations in a phased manner. Iran’s intended messages are clear and direct: it is able and willing to build geopolitical leverage in order to gain sanctions relief.

Iranian officials have stressed that its JCPOA violations are temporary and reversible, designed to compel Europe to resume trade and investment in exchange for a return to the status quo ante. Thus far, European leaders have declined to take the bait, which seems to have prompted last week’s escalations. First, Iran announced that it was following up on its initial October introduction of 30 advanced centrifuges by introducing 30 more, enhancing its ability to obtain fissile material and thereby potentially speeding up its breakout time. Then, it announced it would begin injecting uranium hexafluoride into the 1,044 centrifuges at the Fordow facility, where it is enriching at 4.5%.

The decision to resume enrichment at Fordow is the most significant breach of the nuclear deal thus far. Iran went to great lengths to conceal the heavily fortified, underground enrichment facility built into the side of a mountain, only reporting its existence in 2009 when it was already on the radar of Western intelligence services. Under the JCPOA, Iran was to cease enrichment activities and remove all fissile material and convert Fordow into a research facility. According to non-proliferation expert Chen Kane, resuming enrichment at Fordow “is a step that is relatively harder to reverse since once nuclear material is fed into a centrifuge you cannot do anything else with it other than enrichment.

The IAEA has now confirmed that Iran has indeed taken this step. Even before the conversion of Fordow, Iran had restored its enrichment to pre-JCPOA levels in just two months, going from 450 g to 5 kg per day. The ease with which Tehran has reconstituted its nuclear program highlights one of the JCPOA’s key flaws, that it did not require Iran to fundamentally dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Going forward, any effort to renegotiate a deal with Iran must address this deficiency and insist on zero enrichment.

European leaders have responded to Iran’s alarming provocations with characteristic handwringing and declarations of “concern.” These protestations only embolden Iran to continue pushing the envelope further. The U.S. and Europe need to act in concert to impose costs on Iran for its nuclear proliferation activities. Thus far, the U.S. has acted unilaterally in restoring nuclear sanctions on Iran. This approach has been effective, but has not completely dried up Russia and China’s appetite for continued trade and investment with Iran. When the U.S. assumes the United Nations Security Council presidency next month, it should place triggering the JCPOA’s sanctions snapback mechanism on the agenda. Were Europe to accede to such a move, it would send a strong signal to Moscow and Beijing that there is a united front standing against their efforts to continue acting as a lifeline to Tehran. Most importantly, it would deliver the message to Iran that moderating its behavior, not nuclear extortion, is the only viable path to escape the economic morass that the regime has wrought.  

Jordan Steckler is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).