Iran sent shockwaves through the global community when it announced on Monday that it will begin building its uranium stockpile and ramping up enrichment of low-grade uranium in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran’s uranium enrichment could now reach up to 20% (weapons-grade uranium is usually 90% enriched) in the near future, with its stockpile exceeding the 300-kilogram limit agreed to under the deal.
The move is Iran’s boldest action yet against the nuclear deal — which US President Donald Trump withdrew from last year — and comes amid heightened tensions with Washington. It also comes less than a week after an attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
The US blames Iran for the attack and released incriminating video, but Iran has denied any involvement in the matter.
‘The path we’re on only ends in conflict’
Experts say Iran’s announcement on Monday is designed to increase pressure on the US but does not necessarily mean there’s an imminent threat of Tehran developing a nuclear weapon.
“Iran has a long history of saying it will do certain things in the nuclear world to increase political pressure on us and our allies,” Jon Wolfsthal, who served as the nuclear expert for the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama, told INSIDER.
But while these steps are a concern for nuclear experts, Iran is still at least a year away from being able to build a nuclear weapon. And Monday’s announcement does not represent “a red line moment,” nor does it “put Iran anywhere close to nuclear breakout,” Wolfsthal said.
Ned Price, who served as the senior director of the National Security Council under Obama, told INSIDER the move is “just another development that calls into question the underlying US strategy” toward Iran.
“The Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ approach was supposed to cow Tehran into submission and put us on the path to a ‘better deal,'” Price added, referencing Trump officials’ past comments on the agreement. “Instead, Iran is becoming more provocative, not less,” and “America, not Iran, is the isolated party, and the path we’re on only ends in conflict.”
Trump has proposed holding talks with the Iranians, but they’ve rejected his overtures, citing the administration’s “economic war” against Iran.
In this context, some experts feel that Iran is looking to stir up enough chaos in the region that the US will be forced to ease sanctions and give the Iranian economy a break.
Iran responds to the US’s maximum pressure campaign with ‘maximum blackmail’
Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that what we’re seeing is Iran pushing back against the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign with “maximum blackmail.”
Iran’s decision to “ratchet up uranium enrichment” is the “prelude to walking away from the nuclear agreement and the renewal of its nuclear blackmail effort,” he said. And unless Iran gets the terms it wants, it will “push ahead on uranium enrichment until it is within sprinting distance of a nuclear breakout.”
Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal was widely panned by allies and other signatories to the deal, like the UK, Germany, and France.
And Monday’s announcement appears designed to get Europe to save the agreement and intervene with the US to stop the hammering of its economy.
“It’s a crucial moment, and France can still work with other signatories of the deal and play an historic role to save the deal in this very short time,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday.
The governments of France and Germany both urged Iran t0 uphold the deal following Monday’s announcement.
Meanwhile, Germany and Japan have expressed skepticism about the Trump administration’s claims about last week’s tanker attacks, asking for more evidence before pinning the blame on Iran.
One Republican congressional aide told INSIDER that GOP lawmakers are increasingly concerned that the US’s allies will “leave us out in the cold.”
Indeed, Trump’s actions with respect to both Iran and Saudi Arabia have prompted congressional Republicans to take some of their boldest stances yet against the White House.
And Monday’s announcement, the aide added, “is further proof of how Trump is the sole person responsible for this whole mess. And his tunnel vision and inability to look at foreign policy as anything other than a zero sum game could lead us to nuclear conflict.”