Iran Announces 20% Uranium Enrichment and Seizes South Korean Tanker In The Strait of Hormuz

Iran has been busy on this first Monday of the new year. The Iranian government announced it has started enriching uranium up to twenty percent at an underground facility at Fordo, a town situated south of the holy city of Qom. According to the announcement, orders for the enrichment were given personally by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. As the announcement was being made, news broke that Iran had seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. The tanker, named Hankuk Chemi, was stopped by IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) naval forces for violating ‘environmental protocols’ and led to the port of Bandar Abbas. A short while later, the South Korean foreign ministry demanded the immediate release of the tanker, adding that South Korean forces stationed in the Strait of Hormuz were dispatched to the area. Tehran admitted to the seizure, yet hours earlier had said a South Korean envoy was expected to visit Iran in the coming days to negotiate the release of roughly $7 bn in Iranian assets now frozen in South Korea. The Iranian government is claiming it is seeking the release of the funds to use as payment for COVAX, a COVID-19 vaccine effort being headed-up by the World Health Organization.  

The two events have come to the forefront in a time of already heightened tensions between the United States and Iran. Of the two, the uranium enrichment is the more consequential. A decade ago, Iran’s decision to enrich up to 20% nearly brought on an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. Now, returning to that same enrichment level brings on the risk of a US strike on Iranian nuclear sites. Added to this are the very recent threats Iran has been making against the US as the 1 year mark of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination. Last week, US B-52 bombers made a show-of-force demonstration in the Persian Gulf area as Tehran vowed attacks against US interests in the region. Last night, the Pentagon ordered the USS Nimitz carrier strike group to remain on station in the region. This came three days after the group had been ordered to leave.

Eyes on Iran

On Monday the New York Times reported that last week President Trump was considering military action against Iran’s main nuclear site at Natanz. According to the Times, the president was dissuaded by senior advisers from choosing a military option. The fear of sparking a larger conflict appeared to be the main motivation. Predictably, the Times story has yet to be independently verified by other news outlets. However, its timing and subject matter have opened up discussions about Iran, the present status of its nuclear program, and what US policy will look like if Joe Biden is declared the official winner of the 2020 US Presidential Election when all is said and done.

Western media has been lax in its coverage of the Iranian nuclear program in the last two years or so. Only recently have outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post seen it fit to report on accelerations in Iran’s nuclear program, specifically with regard to centrifuge production. However, the recent pieces have also included reports on how the Iranian government plans to offer a Biden administration options to defuse the crisis. The US has already been down that road once before with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Tehran essentially led from behind in the construction of that plan, laying out the terms it would accept, and then indirectly pressuring the Obama administration to bring the deal to life. Returning to JCPOA, or a similar agreement would be a monumental mistake, and likely impossible to do, no matter how much a Biden presidency might desire to.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have joined the US in expressing concern about Iran and the centrifuge work going on. Yesterday, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed Iran has recently begun operating 175 new centrifuges at Natanz. Tehran has blamed Israel for a series of explosions that occurred over the summer at Natanz and near other nuclear sites in Iran. Even though the true culprit was never determined, Iranian authorities continue to suspect Israel, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia.

The bottom line is that Iran must be watched carefully in the coming weeks. Should work on centrifuges and other aspects of the nuclear program accelerate further, and Joe Biden continue to indicate his administration will adopt a more conciliatory, and passive Iranian policy, military action could become a real possibility. The only question then will be who launches it. The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, or a loose combination of the three.

Iran Facing A Third COVID-19 Wave

COVID-19 cases in Iran have been rising dramatically, prompting health care and government officials to sound the alarm. Restrictions are being implemented now as it becomes apparent that a third wave of COVID-19 is upon Iran. The majority of Iranian provinces are classified as red on the national severity scale.  3,362 additional infections were recorded on Sunday and it seems that Tehran is experiencing the most cases.  Iran has been hard hit by COVID-19. As of this morning there have been 446,448 confirmed cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Iranians have not been following public health restrictions as well as the government would like. I fact both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have issued warnings to the public about adhering to restrictions better. The Iranian government also blames continuing US sanctions for creating conditions where COVID-19 thrives. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the US of inflicting $150 billion worth of damage on the Iranian economy through sanctions.

International health experts are suspicious of the case count numbers in Iran. The death toll could be twice as high as the official figures. Undercounting, and selective testing methods have been cited as possible causes for a miscount. O

Despite the pandemic Iran’s uranium enrichment continues. In a confidential document distributed earlier in September the International Atomic Energy Agency reported the Iranian stockpile of low-enriched uranium increased by 523.8 kilograms between May and August.

Deadline On Nuclear Deal Adherence Looming

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Tehran appears set to honor the 7 July deadline it put in place regarding increased uranium enrichment. The Iranian government has said repeatedly it will no longer honor the enrichment restrictions in the 2015 nuclear deal unless European nations can provide relief from the stringent US economic sanctions now in place. It is becoming apparent that the European effort has failed and come Sunday Iran will begin enriching uranium in any amount it sees fit. Iran has stated the enrichment level will be below the 90-percent purity necessary for uranium to be considered weapons grade. Given Iran’s penchant for misleading statements and outright lies in the past, this claim is circumspect to say the least.

The United States is not taking chances. The Trump administration regards Iran’s statements as threats and has made subtle hints about possible retaliation. Given the fact that President Trump cancelled retaliatory strikes on Iran after a US drone was shot down by Iranian forces last month, Tehran is probably not too concerned by Washington’s rhetoric.

Disregarding the Trump administration’s warnings would be a monumental mistake. The US had made it clear it will not stand by and allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. This position is nothing short of a red line and the US is not going to budge.

We’ll discuss this more after the deadline passes on Sunday.

Iran Update: 26 June, 2019

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Apologies for being radio silent since late last week, but sometimes life and work get in the way unfortunately. I’ll start off with a brief update on Iran and then delve into more detailed postings tomorrow and into the weekend.

Tomorrow, Iran is expected to announce that the size of its uranium stockpiles have exceeded the limits set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which is more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The uranium limitation level is considered to be a key component of the deal. A red line which, if crossed, could nix the entire nuclear deal. The root purpose of the deal has always been to limit the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear program and prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Once Iran makes the announcement and takes this step it places the remaining members of the JCPOA in a difficult position. Iran has given the European nations in the deal until 7 July to offer a better nuclear deal, or relief from the US economic sanctions now in place, it will begin enriching its uranium to weapons-grade levels. This is the real danger at the moment. Thus far, every Iranian move has been calculated to help bring about the end of the economic sanctions now strangling its economy. Tehran has miscalculated more than once, as is evident by fact that the sanctions not only remain in place, but by the reality that the Trump administration is piling on additional sanctions.

Iran’s brinkmanship strategy is failing and its causing the leadership in Tehran to become more desperate. It is in situations like this where miscalculations become more probable, and it goes without saying that an Iranian miscalculation at this point could have disastrous consequences.

We will have to see what materializes tomorrow.