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Nuclear Threshold

Implications of Iran’s enriching uranium to 84% purity

03 March 2023

Bloomberg News, citing two unidentified senior diplomats, on February 19, reported that international atomic monitors, a week earlier, detected that Iran has enriched uranium to 84% purity, just below nuclear weapons-grade, a proof that Iran’s nuclear activities do pose a threat. A purity of 90% is needed to produce nuclear weapons.


The implications of detecting Iran’s recent enrichment activities can be outlined as follows: 

1- Uncertainty about enrichment levels: 

Bloomberg News noted that it was not determined whether Iran intentionally produced the material, or whether the concentration was an unintended accumulation within the network of pipes connecting the hundreds of fast-spinning centrifuges used to separate the isotopes. In any case, that level was achieved, and regardless of whether it was planned or not, it crosses the red lines set for Iran’s nuclear program. Some assessments even went as far to say that this is the purity required to make a nuclear weapon, given that the first US atomic bomb, dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, used material of roughly the 84% level.

2- Iran’s denial: 

Iran was quick to deny the Bloomberg News report about enriching uranium to 84% purity. Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, that Iran is not seeking to enrich to a level higher than 60% purity. However, this statement does not deny that Iran is working toward a nuclear bomb, given that the Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian previously stated that his country is highly capable of building a nuclear bomb although he denied that it is seeking to acquire one. 

3- The IAEA investigating the claims: 

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, visited Tehran on February 21, 2023 to validate the Bloomberg News report about Iran’s hiking uranium enrichment levels.  

The visit came after Director-General of the IAEA Rafael Grossi said he was “aware of the report, and noted that the agency is discussing the issue with Tehran and that he will present the agency’s Board of Governors, with the details at its meeting scheduled in March.

Iran’s Objectives

Through nuclear escalation, Iran seeks to achieve several goals, the most important of which are as follows: 

1- Countering western pressures:

The recent nuclear escalation reported by Bloomberg News is Iran’s second nuclear violation in February 2023. In early February, a confidential report by the IAEA showed that Iran failed to inform the agency about a “substantial” change to the interconnections between the two cascades, or clusters, of centrifuges enriching uranium to up to 60% at the Fordow enrichment plant. The change shows Iran’s insistence on nuclear escalation, especially when the western powers ratchet up pressures and sanctions. The latest and fifth series of the European Council’s sanctions was imposed in February 2023 against additional 32 Iranian individuals, including two ministers, and two entities. 

2- Responding to Israeli threats: 

Tehran uses nuclear escalation to respond to Israeli threats. The recent escalation came a few days after a drone attack hit an Iranian military site in the city of Isfahan in late January 2023. Iran accused Israel of being behind the attack. 

Iran responded by attacking an Israeli-linked oil tanker in the Arabian Sea. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran for being behind the attack, and on February 19, and in response, Israel carried out a rocket strike on a site of Iranian militias in central Damascus killing 15 people and injuring several others, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

3- Moving stalled nuclear talks: 

Through nuclear escalation, Tehran aims to break the impasse in nuclear talks with the West, which stalled since September 2022. Along with the nuclear escalation, Iran sends signals that it does not mind reviving the nuclear deal and even said that it exchanged messages with Washington and other western powers through mediators. 

The statements are consistent with efforts being made by Iraq and Qatar to bring together the views of Washington and Tehran. As part of the efforts, Qatari the foreign minister visited Tehran in late January 2023 and Washington on February 8, 2023. Additionally, Iraq’s foreign minister visited Washington on the same day and later on February 20, the Iranian foreign minister visited Baghdad, a sign that Fuad Hussein was relaying messages from Washington to Tehran. 

Iran’s Expected Options

Based on the above, Iran can be expected to take up either one of the following options: 

1- Escalation: 

This scenario would be based on Iran’s insistence on continuing its nuclear escalation and raising uranium enrichment levels aiming to empower itself to counter western pressures. Yet, this would trigger military action against Iran especially given that Israel and the United States reiterate that they will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. It would even lead to military confrontation. 

2- De-escalation: 

This scenario is based on Iran’s willingness to de-escalate knowing that its nuclear escalation can prompt the IAEA’s Council of Governors to make a decision against Tehran at its meeting scheduled in March 2023 if it confirms that Iran did enrich uranium to high levels of purity. Iran fears such a measure, because the issue would then be referred to the Security Council and fresh international sanctions would be imposed, something that Iran will not favor while it continues to demand the lifting of sanctions imposed against it after Washington withdrew from the nuclear deal.

3- Partial Concessions: 

In light of its previous experience with the IAEA, Iran would avoid clashes with the international nuclear watchdog by giving limited concessions. This was the case after the IAEA said in a report released on September 8, 2022, that Iran showed no cooperation about providing “technically credible explanations” regarding the presence and origin of enriched uranium particles detected at Iranian undeclared locations as well as providing easy access to monitoring systems installed inside its nuclear facilities. At that time, an agreement was reached with Iran whereby the IAEA inspectors were allowed to do maintenance work on the agency’s monitoring equipment and cameras in some Iranian facilities and replace full memory cards. Iran might well do the same, especially after its foreign minister Amir-Abdollahian stated that the country is making preparations for the IAEA’s director-general’s visit to Tehran, noting that the two sides have joint initiatives on the agenda. 

In conclusion, it can be claimed that the detection of particles of uranium enriched to 84% of purity at Iranian nuclear facilities – be it intentional or by accident – means that Iran has crossed the red line, a violation that might well prompt Washington and western allies to ratchet up pressure on Tehran based on a resolution is issued against Iran to force Tehran to accept the revival of the nuclear deal and drop its demands. Otherwise, the alternative would be referral to the Security Council and consequently a fresh series of international sanctions against Iran. Moreover, the detection of the enriched uranium might push Israel to launch sabotage attacks inside Iran to prevent Iran from using nuclear escalation as leverage. 

Additionally, Iran is likely to go in two parallel courses, simultaneously with the first being reinforcing its leverages (nuclear program, missile program and regional influence), and the second being a willingness to move the stalled talks despite holding tenaciously to its previous rigid and intransigent positions.