Iran's Uranium Enrichment Breaks Nuclear Deal Limit. Here's What That Means

Jul 7, 2019
Originally published on July 8, 2019 8:55 pm

Updated on Monday at 12:40 p.m. ET

Iran has crossed another line set in the 2015 nuclear deal between it and major world powers.

According to state media, Iran has begun enriching uranium above levels enshrined in the agreement. The move sends a signal that Iran is losing patience with a deal that has not provided the economic relief promised, more than a year after the United States withdrew from the agreement.

By Monday, Iran had reached levels of around 4.5% enrichment, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told the semiofficial Fars news agency. He warned that Iran could go as high as 20% in the future, though that level is "not needed now."

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran has crossed the line.

On Sunday, Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, said Iran would go over some other unspecified limit again in 60 days, raising pressure on diplomatic negotiations.

"This is to protect the nuclear deal, not to nullify it. ... This is an opportunity for talks. And if our partners fail to use this opportunity, they should not doubt our determination to leave the deal," Araghchi said.

Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to keep its enrichment of uranium below 3.67% purity. It was one of several limits set in an effort to keep Iran at least a year away from accumulating enough material with which to build a nuclear bomb.

In exchange for holding down enrichment levels, Iran was supposed to see economic sanctions lifted and more opportunities for trade. But the U.S. reimposed the sanctions it had promised to lift and is demanding that other countries cut off most business with Iran. The Trump administration says it's trying to force Iran to renegotiate a tougher deal and change its behavior in the Middle East.

Now, Iran is hurting for cash as oil and other exports dwindle.

Iran says it will stop meeting its commitments under the nuclear deal unless European countries and other trade partners find a way to provide the economic benefits it was originally promised.

What is enrichment anyway?

Uranium is found in nature, but not all uranium is useful as a nuclear fuel. One particular isotope, uranium-235, can be used to power nuclear reactors and bombs.

Uranium-235 makes up only about 0.7% of the uranium that's dug out of the ground. Enrichment is the process of concentrating the uranium-235 to higher levels.

At about 3% to 5%, enriched uranium can be used for nuclear power reactors of the sort that exist in many nations all over the world.

At 20%, it's used in certain kinds of research reactors, which are less common.

Closer to 90% is considered weapons grade.

Iran is one of only a few nations that possesses enrichment technology.

To what level is Iran enriching its uranium?

Before the nuclear deal, Iran had begun enriching large quantities of uranium to nearly 20%. For technical reasons, the gap from 20% to 90% is relatively small, and most experts agreed that the country was within weeks or a few months of getting material for a bomb, if it decided to "sprint" toward such a goal.

But Iran never did. Instead, it opted to surrender a large quantity of its 20% enriched uranium in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. The uranium was diluted and then exported to Russia, according to Corey Hinderstein, vice president for international fuel cycle strategies at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and a former Obama administration official who helped oversee the deal.

Iran also shut down some of the equipment used to enrich uranium — devices known as centrifuges.

Under the deal, Iran continued to enrich, but it stopped at the limit set in the agreement. "That limit, 3.67%, is in the Iran nuclear deal, and it's there for a reason," Hinderstein says. It was one of the numbers that kept Iran from producing a bomb quickly.

After Trump was elected, Iran kept to the deal in the hopes that the other parties, including Europe, China and Russia, would continue to provide economic benefits. But the Trump administration has threatened secondary sanctions on any entity that does business with Iran.

Now Iran says it is enriching past the levels set by the agreement.

Technically, it can be done with no modifications to Iran's enrichment setup, says Houston Wood, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia. "It's a really simple thing for them to do."

Didn't Iran cross another line recently?

In addition to being required to keep its enrichment levels low, Iran was also restricted in how much uranium it could have. Under the agreement, it could have no more than 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of 3.67% enriched uranium.

On July 1, Iran said that it had exceeded the 300-kilogram cap. The International Atomic Energy Agency later confirmed that Iran had crossed that line.

So is Iran within "weeks" of getting enough material for a nuclear weapon again?

No. It will take Iran time to enrich uranium back to higher levels and to accumulate enough enriched uranium for a weapon.

Because of the way the nuclear deal was structured, Iran is still about a year away from getting the material together again, according to Hinderstein. But that time will likely shrink in coming months, unless the deal can be salvaged.

Iran continues to officially maintain that its program is peaceful and that it does not want a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency has found evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran that was active until the mid-2000s.

Is there any way to stop Iran from going down this road?

Iran has said it is willing to go back to the deal if it is given the economic benefits it was promised. That will be difficult as long as the U.S. continues to enforce strict sanctions on the nation.

But there is not another obvious way to stop Iran from accumulating dangerous levels of nuclear material. Sabotage efforts and assassinations have slowed the country's program in the past, but such methods have been unable to stop Iran outright.

Similarly, military action against Iran's nuclear facilities would probably set the program back, but only temporarily. "You just can't bomb their program out of existence," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. "I think what you're left with is negotiations."

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Iran is now enriching uranium above limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal. That's the word from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran's nuclear facilities. Earlier today, Vice President Mike Pence offered this warning.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Under President Donald Trump, America will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.


SHAPIRO: That's Pence speaking at a conference in Washington earlier today. And joining us now to discuss Iran's nuclear activities is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, who covers science and security for us. Hey, Geoff.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with the vice president's comment there. Is that what Iran is trying to do - get a nuclear weapon?

BRUMFIEL: Well, at the moment it looks like the answer to that question is no. So you need a little enrichment 101 here. Buckle up.


BRUMFIEL: Only a tiny fraction of the uranium that gets dug out of the ground can actually be used for things like nuclear power reactors and nuclear weapons. And so what the process of enrichment is doing is actually concentrating that level. If you enrich to about 5%, that's good for a reactor. Closer to 90% is what you really need for a nuclear bomb. Now, under the nuclear deal, Iran promised to keep it pretty low, at 3.67%. Just over the weekend, Iran announced it was going to be going up to around 4 1/2%. That's still way below bomb-grade.

SHAPIRO: So if they're not sprinting in that direction towards a nuclear weapon, what are they actually doing?

BRUMFIEL: What they're doing is sending a message. The U.S. pulled out of this nuclear agreement last year, and they've been making Iran's life pretty miserable ever since. They've reimposed a ton of sanctions, and they've also imposed sanctions on anyone who does business with Iran.

But the U.S. isn't the only party to the nuclear deal. Europe, China and Russia were also supposed to provide Iran economic benefits. And so Iran is crossing these lines in the deal to really try and ramp up the pressure on those other parties to give them some sort of economic benefit to remain at the deal. And they've said that they're going to cross another line in 60 days if they don't start seeing those benefits, although it's unclear exactly what that line would be.

SHAPIRO: So some of this is signaling using uranium enrichment to send a message, but technically it does also get Iran closer to having what they need to build a nuclear weapon, right?

BRUMFIEL: It does. I mean, I would call it a baby step. Most of the experts I've spoken to about this were actually concerned. We knew Iran was going to make some sort of announcement. They were concerned that it might be Iran going all the way to 20% right away or near 20% enrichment. That would be a big step toward getting a nuclear weapon. So Iran is showing restraint here. They're clearly trying to slowly ratchet up the pressure.

SHAPIRO: So how would we know if Iran does decide to start racing toward a nuclear weapon? What signs would we see?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the enrichment levels could go up much, much higher. The other thing to watch for is right now there are all these nuclear inspectors crawling around Iran's facilities, and they're the ones who can say, yes, they've gone over this limit; no, they haven't. Iran may decide to kick them out, and that would be a very, very serious step that would indicate that maybe their intentions were changing.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.