Iran's Move to Speed Up Its Nuclear Program Complicates Biden's Plan to Resume Diplomacy

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the Council of Ministers meeting in Tehran, Iran on December 02, 2020. Credit - Iranian Presidency Handout—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Iran’s senior political body has ratified a bill to enrich uranium to 20%, a jump that if implemented would give Iran the capacity to convert its stockpile into weapons-grade fissile material within six months. The bill put forward by the Guardian Council throws down a gauntlet to President-elect Joe Biden and U.S. allies: ease sanctions within two months, or Iran will block access to international inspectors.

Iran’s parliament ratified the new law on Dec. 2, only days after Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in an attack in the countryside north of Tehran. The move is being read as a response to the death of a man sometimes referred to as “Iran’s Oppenheimer,” but in fact Fakhrizadeh was not a well-known figure among the Iranian public. His death provoked a far more muted street-level response than that of Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani, the influential military leader killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq on Jan 3. That’s partly a function of the more discreet profile of the scientist and partly due to Iranians’ exhaustion at the end of a year of punishing sanctions, friendly fire blunders, and the Middle East’s worst COVID-19 crisis, experts say.

But it also reflects the bind in which the apparent extrajudicial killing places on the country’s leadership. Iran has “no good options” as to how to respond, says Ariane Tabatabai, author of No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran’s National Security Strategy, “But that doesn’t mean you don’t have advocates for all of those options throughout the political spectrum.” The hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) had threatened “strong revenge” for Fakhrizadeh’s death. But Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who opposed the parliamentary bill the day it was passed, has said that retaliation would come “at the proper time” to avoid falling into the “trap” laid by Iran’s enemies.

For Rouhani, there’s no doubt over who sprung it. Iranian security officials have accused Israel and an exiled opposition group of using “electronic devices” to kill Fakhrizadeh remotely. Israel has maintained its traditional silence over its alleged role, though an unnamed Israeli military official told the New York Times on Nov 29 the world should “thank us” for the hit.

Still, experts say, a better question than who is why: the loss of Fakhrizadeh would not necessarily prevent Iran from restarting a nuclear weapons development program if it decided to pursue such a course. “The Islamic Republic doesn’t invest solely in individuals but rather takes a broader institutional approach,” says Sanam Vakil, director of Iran Forum at London’s Chatham House. Fakhrizadeh was comparable to a company’s visionary or CEO, she says, but “ultimately, I don’t think [killing him] is going to impact the knowledge or the know-how.”

Rather, Vakil told TIME on Nov. 30, Fakhrizadeh’s death is “a clear attempt to obstruct the Biden Administration’s proposed planned quick re-entry into the JCPOA.” That’s an acronym for the multilateral accord agreed in 2015, which international observers said was achieving its objective of halting Iran’s nuclear program before Trump unilaterally quit the deal in 2018 in favor of sanctions under the auspices of a “maximum pressure” campaign.

That campaign has failed its objective of forcing Iran back to the negotiating table and yielding a new deal that curbs its malign activity in the region. The JCPOA sets the limit for Iranian nuclear enrichment at 3.67%, which Iran breached in July 2019. Since then, the enrichment level has remained steady at up to 4.5%. In its Nov. 17 report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) determined that Iran had been using a type of centrifuge banned under the accord to enrich uranium at its Natanz nuclear facility.

But enriching uranium to 20%—as the bill proposes—would constitute a far more grievous breach. The challenge it presents to Biden is no less than the one it poses to Rouhani, as he attempts to wait out the Trump administration. Speaking in Iran’s parliament before the new bill was ratified, he characterized it as “harmful” to diplomatic efforts aimed at returning to the JCPOA and easing sanctions. The extent to which he is able to delay its implementation could determine whether the U.S. and Iran can repair their relationship or remain at increasingly dangerous loggerheads.

Death of a nuclear scientist

“Remember his name,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in 2018 of Fakhrizadeh. The scientist first came to public attention in 2015, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) identified his role in a past military-oriented nuclear research program. Netanyahu named him again in a press conference in which he unveiled a cache of documents Mossad agents had exfiltrated from Iran’s clandestine nuclear archives. Israel’s prime minister discussed those documents—most of which were at least 15 years old, according to press reports at the time—with Trump just days before the U.S. President made good on his threat of pulling out of the JCPOA.

According to the State Department’s 2020 report, the archive was retained “at least in part to preserve technical expertise relevant to a nuclear weapons capability, and potentially to aid in any future effort to pursue nuclear weapons again, if a decision were made to do so.” Naysan Rafati, who heads the Iran program at International Crisis Group, puts the emphasis on that if: “Fakhrizadeh’s expertise makes him a concern if you are looking to a day when Iran’s weapons-related research could be resumed,” he tells TIME. “But certainly, based on the intelligence that’s open from the IAEA and the State Department, that research is latent but not ongoing.”

The reason for Fakhrizadeh’s killing might have been simple opportunism on the part of the perpetrators, Rafati says. They saw that Fakhrizadeh was targetable, and calculated that the risk involved in carrying out such an operation was outweighed by the benefits of removing one of Iran’s key scientists. But the bind it puts Iran’s leadership in was likely part of the calculus too.

To lose such a prominent scientist is an embarrassing blow for Tehran because it shows foreign agents have made significant inroads inside its borders. It comes at the end of a year when the outcry following Soleimani’s death was almost immediately overshadowed by the IRGC’s accidental drowning of a passenger plane, killing all 176 people on board. It also follows a summer of mysterious fires at Iranian nuclear test and research sites—including a July explosion at Iran’s main site Natanz, for which experts have said Israel is likely responsible. Days after he lost the U.S. election, Trump reportedly mulled options for attacking Iran before his advisors dissuaded him.

“Clearly, from Iran’s perspective, deterrence has failed over the past year. So, how do you restore that?” says Tabatabai. Effective deterrence not only matters domestically but enables Iran to project power to its network of proxies in the region. But military retaliation risks either provoking a counter-response from Israel or the U.S or diplomatic isolation.

Threatening weeks ahead

For now, it’s America that’s isolated. In August, only the Dominican Republic voted in favor of the U.S. resolution to restore an arms embargo on Iran at the U.N. Security Council, which also rejected American calls for “snapback” sanctions. The European Union has called Fakhrizadeh’s killing “a criminal act” that “runs counter to the principle of respect for human rights the E.U. stands for.” And the UAE—which in Sept. normalized relations with Israel—also condemned it. On Nov. 30, a group of European Union lawmakers said in a statement that the U.K., France, and Germany—the so-called “E3” signatories of the JCPOA—should set out a roadmap for the U.S. and Iran to return to the accord.

While Trump remains in the Oval Office, the pressure on Iran is unlikely to relent. The U.S. has imposed new sanctions on Iran on a near-weekly basis since September. Biden, meanwhile, has said he would lift sanctions if Tehran returns “to strict compliance with the nuclear deal.”

The agreement remains the flagship achievement of Rouhani’s eight years in office. But after successive years of recession—and absent any sanctions relief—his opponents have been able to cast the JCPOA as a pyrrhic victory. Hardliners made big gains in Iran’s legislative elections in February, and ahead of presidential elections scheduled for June 2021, “they might not want Rouhani succeeding too quickly,” in returning to the JCPOA Rafati says.

Meanwhile, calls for more belligerence are only likely to pick up approaching the anniversary of Soleimani’s killing on Jan 3. From where Rouhani’s sitting, Jan. 20 must appear a long way away.