Tehran has ramped up uranium enrichment at a pace not seen since the landmark 2015 agreement where Iran limited uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief before former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018.
Analysts believe that Tehran may have already received the material needed to produce nuclear weapons.
The lack of video footage from nuclear facilities robs negotiators of the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), making it “technically impossible to reach an agreement,” IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told CNN Thursday.
“Or you could make (a deal) based on a lack of information, which I don’t think will happen,” Grossi said. “That’s why we say it’s very serious. This has consequences. Of course have”.
Iran has also begun installing advanced centrifuges in a cluster at an underground enrichment plant, Reuters reported, which said it had read an IAEA report describing an escalating nuclear activity in Iran. The incident was reported after the IAEA’s governing body passed a resolution failing to explain traces of uranium found at three undeclared sites.
The acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program comes amid rising tensions between Iran and the United States. Negotiations around the JCPOA have stalled due to growing pressure from Tehran to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite branch of the Iranian military, from the list of terrorist organizations. It is believed that this is the last stumbling block in almost a year and a half of negotiations between the two countries.
Both sides have so far refused to budge on this issue due to domestic political pressure in their respective countries.
Trump designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization in his final weeks in office. The decision was called a “poison pill” by his critics, who accused Trump of throwing a key into the wheels of future negotiations to restore the JCPOA.
Dangerous days ahead
The deadlocked talks have dangerous consequences for the region.
“While both the US and Iran have resolved most of the technical issues involved in returning to the nuclear deal, disagreements remain in areas that are mostly symbolic,” said Dina Esfandiari, Senior Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at Crisis Group.
“As a result, Iran is now lashing out, increasing the pressure,” she added.
When Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, he unleashed a wave of crushing sanctions on the Iranian economy. At the time, the US government discovered that Tehran continued to abide by the agreement. But, as with many other Obama-era politicians, Trump was determined to annul the landmark nuclear deal, citing Iran’s continued meddling in the Middle East through Tehran-linked paramilitary groups.
A vocal opponent of Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure campaign” on Iran, US President Joe Biden resumed negotiations when he took office. But Biden’s policies have so far failed to revive the deal, and Iran has steadily raised the stakes, violating its end of the deal.
“The Iranians have not seen any benefits from the JCPOA since 2018,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute. “The IAEA saw the benefit in this. Others saw it as a benefit because the Iranians were generally compliant.”
“It was only a matter of time before this was over and the Iranians would say, ‘Well, if we don’t get anything for this, why should you?’,” Parsi added.
With Iran roughly a year away from producing nuclear weapons, analysts say, the region may now move inexorably towards further escalation.
Biden, meanwhile, has run out of options given that the US has already imposed sanctions on Iran under the Trump administration.
The sanctions have dealt a heavy blow to its economy, but not destroyed it, and Iran is likely to stop responding to further economic sanctions. Israel’s assassinations in recent years of senior officials, including a prominent nuclear scientist, have also failed to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment.
This could lead the US and its allies to consider a military option.
A war against Iran may crush its nuclear program, but it will cause untold damage to the region as a whole, in addition to dragging the US into the region it was trying to get out of.
“Some of the most aggressive escalations from the Iranian side in terms of expanding the program have come under Biden’s watch, not Trump’s,” Parsi said. “That’s because Biden continued Trump’s policies.”
Mostafa Salem and Becky Anderson of CNN contributed to this report.