WASHINGTON — Iran's decision to dramatically increase uranium enrichment is designed to strengthen its hand in future negotiations with President-elect Joe Biden's administration, say experts, European diplomats and former U.S. officials.
The move reflects Iran's increasing desperation to get U.S. economic sanctions lifted, but it runs the risk of provoking a confrontation with Israel or the U.S. during President Donald Trump's final weeks in office.
Iran is gambling that the move, along with the seizure of a South Korean tanker in the Persian Gulf, will ratchet up pressure on the West and the incoming Biden team to act quickly to revive the international nuclear deal of 2015 and lift punishing U.S. sanctions that have ravaged Iran's economy, experts said.
"Iran is sending a clear message to the Biden administration, that it's still interested, that Biden needs to act fast before the window closes," said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the nonprofit Arms Control Association.
But, she added, "Iran has to be careful not to overplay its hand."
By enriching uranium to 20 percent, Iran will stand only one technical step away from producing weapons-grade material needed for an atomic bomb. Davenport called it "a significant escalation" and said "20 percent is about 90 percent of the work required to get to weapons grade."
If Iran chooses to defuse tensions, the increased enrichment can still be reversed, along with other incremental breaches of the 2015 deal that Iran has carried out over the past 18 months, Davenport and other experts said.
Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, suggested the door to diplomacy remained open — if all signatories to the deal came back into compliance. "Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL," he tweeted on Monday.
Once the United States meets its obligations under the agreement and abides by the U.N. Security Council resolution that endorsed the deal, "Iran will then swiftly return to compliance under the nuclear accord," said Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for Iran's U.N. mission.
The nuclear agreement — which was supposed to prevent Iran from building an atomic bomb — imposed restrictions on Iran's nuclear program in return for easing U.S. and international sanctions. President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal in 2018, reimposed sanctions that had been lifted and introduced layers of new sanctions.
In response, Iran has breached the agreement's provisions in a step-by-step escalation, stopping short of quitting the accord altogether. When the deal was first implemented and Tehran complied with its terms, Iran's "breakout time" to secure enough weapons-grade material for an atomic bomb was at 12 months. Now the breakout time has dropped to about three to four months due to Iran's violations.
Biden has promised to return the U.S. to the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if Iran once again abides by its provisions. Biden has said he wants to prevent Iran from building a nuclear arsenal, and Tehran appears to be signaling that if the next president doesn't act quickly to relieve economic pressure on Iran, it could opt to abandon the deal and pursue a clandestine nuclear weapons project.
"By taking this move so close to Biden coming into office, Iran is bringing itself to the top of the headlines, creating a sense of urgency around its nuclear activities," said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Geranmayeh and other experts said the move was also a way of placating harder line elements in Iran that remain skeptical of the nuclear deal and eager to retaliate against the U.S. and Israel after the assassination of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which Iran blamed on Israel, the suspected sabotage of an enrichment plant at Natanz and the killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad a year ago.
Compared to the alternatives, the decision to expand uranium enrichment is a calibrated move that still allows Iran a way to lower the temperature in the future, Geranmayeh said.
"It's still very calculated, managed and reversible," she said.
Still, Iran's enrichment decision represents a major breach of the nuclear deal. Tehran has not enriched uranium to 20 percent purity since the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, and the agreement permitted enrichment only up to 3.67 percent. Iran had already surpassed that level over the past year, enriching to less than five percent, and it has far exceeded limits on the amount of low-enriched uranium that it could stockpile.
Iran also said Monday it has made advances in its enrichment process, saying it has reduced the time to enrich uranium to 20 percent, from 24 to 12 hours.
The Trump administration and other opponents of the nuclear agreement say Iran should not be rewarded for violating the deal, and that it has always used the threat of obtaining the bomb to extract concessions from Western powers.
On Monday the State Department called Iran's expanded enrichment "a clear attempt to increase its campaign of nuclear extortion, an attempt that will continue to fail."
Richard Goldberg, who served on President Trump's National Security Council, said Iran's expanded enrichment work and other actions are designed to create "an atmosphere of crisis" with the aim of prompting a response from Washington.
"It's notable that the steps they take are almost always modulated to go far enough to create a media frenzy but not go too far as to provoke an American or Israeli strike," said Goldberg, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank.
The last time Tehran enriched uranium to 20 percent levels, Israel weighed military action against Iran, prompting Washington to pursue diplomacy that led to the 2015 deal. President Barack Obama's first defense secretary, Robert Gates, wrote in his memoir "Duty" that "Israel's leaders were itching to launch a military attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday condemned Iran's enrichment move and warned, "Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon."
European powers Britain, France and Germany, which signed the 2015 deal along with the U.S., Russia and China, are cautiously optimistic that the Biden team will be able to work out a way of reviving the agreement with Iran. But they are worried about brinkmanship by all the key players in the final days of Trump's presidency, two European diplomats told NBC News.
Tensions have been running high between Iran and its two arch-foes, the U.S. and Israel, since the killing of the nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh in November. After U.S. officials accused Iranian-backed militias in Iraq of firing rockets at the American embassy compound in Baghdad on Dec. 20, President Trump issued a warning to Iran. "Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible," the president tweeted. "Think it over."
In the run-up to the Jan. 3 anniversary of Soleimani's death, the Trump administration dispatched B-52 bombers in a flight over the region and a nuclear-powered submarine to the Persian Gulf. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller initially ordered the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz back home and then reversed himself, saying the carrier would remain in the Middle East. Miller said the decision was due to Iranian threats against Trump and other U.S. officials, but he did not offer more details on the reasons for his about-face.
While Iran marked the first anniversary of Soleimani's Jan. 3, 2020, killing and announced its uranium enrichment plans, its Revolutionary Guard forces on Monday seized a South Korean tanker, the MT Hankuk Chemi, bound for Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. The vessel was carrying a chemical shipment including methanol.
Iran alleged it seized the vessel over alleged polluting in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. The State Department accused Iran of threatening navigation freedoms in the Persian Gulf and trying to use extortion to get relief from economic sanctions.
Iran is anxious to get access to about $7 billion in frozen assets in South Korea from oil sales, which are locked under sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
"This is a regime up against the wall financially, running out of cash very quickly and identifying all the places where they have cash that could quickly be used to avoid financial collapse," Goldberg said.
Jake Sullivan, President-elect Biden's national security adviser, who helped negotiate the 2015 deal, reiterated that the next president was ready to return to the agreement and suggested the new administration would like to discuss issues beyond the original accord, including Iran's growing ballistic missile arsenal. He told CNN on Sunday that once Iran returns to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal there would be a "follow-on negotiation" over its missile capabilities.
"In that broader negotiation, we can ultimately secure limits on Iran's ballistic missile technology," Sullivan said, "and that is what we intend to try to pursue through diplomacy."
Iran, however, has ruled out any negotiations over its ballistic missiles, saying it is only interested in reviving the nuclear agreement that was hammered out five years ago.
In the meantime, Iran's economy remains under severe pressure, with foreign currency reserves declining. Tehran has asked for a $5 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund but the U.S. has blocked the request.
Amid severe economic hardship in Iran, the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month left no doubt that he supports efforts to ease economic pressure on his country and get the U.S. sanctions removed.
"If the sanctions can be lifted, we should not delay even one hour. ...If the sanctions can be lifted in the right, wise ... and dignified way, this must be done," he told government officials.