Iran Seeks Leverage in Nuclear Standoff With U.S.

Iran Seeks Leverage in Nuclear Standoff With U.S.

Tehran wants U.S. to lift sanctions as price to recommit to landmark accord; some say moves aim to pressure Biden

Since President Trump withdrew the U.S. from a multilateral agreement aimed at curbing Iran’s atomic ambitions, Tehran has moved steadily to step up uranium enrichment and, most recently, said it was starting work to produce a key material used in nuclear warheads.

European diplomats, who have sought to salvage the accord, say they see the Iranian moves as an effort to increase pressure on Washington and President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin to the deal and lift sanctions.

The question now is: Have the Iranians gone so far that a U.S. return is less likely?

Since the Trump administration started its maximum-pressure sanctions campaign, policy makers in Tehran skeptical of the 2015 accord have gained more sway, pressing President Hassan Rouhani to take increasingly serious steps that shorten the path to a nuclear weapon, according to Iranian officials.

“The hard-liners want to show public opinion they can achieve better outcomes,” said one senior Iranian official.

Mr. Biden has said he intends to rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran comes back into compliance. His administration is expected to include veterans of the Iran nuclear talks, including lead negotiator Wendy Sherman as deputy secretary of state.

Iranian officials say their moves are easily reversible if the U.S. rolls back sanctions. Its growing stockpiles of enriched uranium can be diluted or shipped out, as they were after the nuclear agreement. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has issued a decree banning development of nuclear weapons.

Still, Tehran has methodically moved to increase its capacity to develop atomic arms since Washington left the nuclear agreement, which also includes the U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia.

Iran is now stockpiling more than 10 times as much low-enriched uranium as the accord allows, albeit far below its pre-deal levels. The maximum purity of this current stockpile is 4.5%, but if enriched to weapons grade of 90% purity it would be enough material for two weapons, some experts say.

In December, after the killing of a top Iranian nuclear scientist in an attack Tehran has blamed on Israel, the nation’s parliament passed a law—enacted even though Mr. Rouhani refused to sign it—requiring the government to take additional steps prohibited by the 2015 deal.

Last week, Iran said it had resumed enrichment of uranium to 20% purity. Then on Wednesday, a confidential report from the United Nations atomic agency said Iran was taking another major step: preparing to start production of uranium metal, a key material used to make the explosive core of atomic bombs.

Iran informed U.N. inspectors of its moves and said they are aimed at making reactor fuel, not weapons.

“There is definitely a risk that Iran is overplaying its hand,” said Eric Brewer, a former counterproliferation official at the U.S. National Security Council now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If the Biden administration comes in and Iran makes excessive demands it’s going to be pretty escalatory,” he added.

Iranian officials say the latest steps go beyond what was desired by President Rouhani, a political moderate. Some argued that 20% enrichment, production of uranium metal and eviction of nuclear inspectors not only jeopardized any effort to restore the accord but risked solidifying U.S. sanctions.

The pressure from hard-liners to ramp up nuclear activities also poses a challenge to Mr. Rouhani’s allies ahead of the Iranian presidential election in June, in which Mr. Rouhani can’t run due to term limits but some of his allies are expected to compete.

Mr. Rouhani hopes an interim agreement before the election would bring Iran back toward full compliance and reduce tensions with the U.S. and Europe, said an official in his government.

The Iranian official said the president is aware that further breaches of the accord could undermine that goal and strengthen hard-liners who would have no problem closing the door on diplomacy with the West.

Mr. Rouhani’s conservative opponents say President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal vindicated their view that the U.S. couldn’t be trusted, and diplomacy was a mistake. Iranian officials say the recent breaches are a response to Europe and the U.S. failing to fulfill their side of the deal.

Not only has the nuclear deal failed to bring Iran economic benefits, said Foad Izadi, a conservative political analyst and University of Tehran lecturer, Iran now has the worst of both worlds: U.S. sanctions, which the deal was meant to lift, as well as reduced nuclear capabilities.

“Should the other side show no interest in returning to the” deal, he said, “Iran should be able to keep the pressure on them.”

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