Since Mahsa Amini’s death on September 16, protests in Iran have escalated, bringing increased attention to the Iranian government and the state of democracy in Iran. Meanwhile, Iran has continued to conduct a process called uranium enrichment, which involves the enrichment of uranium to higher levels of purity. This process is necessary for the development of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Western leaders and leaders in the Middle East have expressed widespread concern that this process represents a move by Iran toward nuclear armament. However, Iran has denied claims that the process is an act of nuclear proliferation, stating that the uranium enrichment process is being conducted for the sole purpose of the development of nuclear energy. Recent progress on this process shows Iran enriching uranium up to 60%, a significant rise from previous enrichment of up to 20% in 2015, but what does this mean for global security, and why are Western leaders and their allies worried by this development?
One important factor underlying this concern is that Iran’s enrichment process is being conducted at the Fordow nuclear plant, a concealed enrichment facility some 20 miles (32 km) northeast of the city of Qom, which lies northwest of the center of the country (Nuclear Power in Iran, 2022). This facility is one of two in Iran, with the other being in Natanz. Western leaders and their international allies, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have expressed concern over the lack of transparency regarding the operations and configuration of this nuclear plant in Fordow, which is compounded by the fact that the site is buried under a mountain, making it harder to attack (Hafezi, Murphy, 2022). The decision to use this plant as the location for uranium enrichment reveals strategic secrecy on the part of Iran; a move that Western leaders view as detrimental to open discussion and international transparency on nuclear weapons development.
As mentioned, Iran produced uranium enriched up to 20% in 2015, meaning the 60% rise is a major one and is a far cry from the terms of the agreement reached under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), wherein which Iran’s nuclear enrichment was capped at 3.67%. Iran has since broken this agreement, and talks have collapsed between the US, its Western allies, and the IAEA with Iran. Previous agreements permitted Iran to only use IR-1 centrifuges in its nuclear enrichment process. However, since the deal’s collapse, Iran has installed “cascades of more efficient advanced centrifuges, such as the IR-2m, IR-4, and IR-6” (Hafezi, Murphy, 2022). The process of enriching uranium at the Fordow facility was also banned under the deal, making uranium enrichment at this plant especially worrying for Western negotiators. This has further worsened Iran’s relations with the West amid outspoken Western and international opposition to the Iranian government’s suppression of protesters and the sale of its Shahed 136 drones to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine.
Enriching uranium to 60% is a significant step forward in Iran’s enrichment process. However, this falls short of the approximate 90% purity generally considered necessary for nuclear arms development. Despite this understanding, experts have observed that Iran, under current enrichment conditions, has the ability to develop a nuclear weapon successfully. Indeed, Iran is said to have enough 60% enriched uranium to “reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb” (Iran expansion of uranium capacity, 2022). This development poses an alarming security concern to neighboring countries, particularly Israel, as Iranian leaders and authority figures have repeatedly lamented the existence of the Israeli state and the perceived subjugation of Islamic people by Israel.
This uranium enrichment development arrives amid a backdrop of expressed concern by the IAEA and its director Rafael Grossi, who have let their frustration be known at their lack of permission to access Iranian nuclear sites over the past two years, with the IAEA’s surveillance equipment being removed some five months ago (Iran expansion of uranium capacity, 2022). The IAEA continues to highlight the problems associated with Iran preventing its attempts to monitor supplies of enriched uranium in Iran. IAEA monitoring efforts are understood to be conducted to ensure international safety, and transparency around nuclear weapons, and to prevent nuclear proliferation. Thus, the prevention of this monitoring is seen as presenting a direct threat to these aspirations and, more broadly, global security.
With this uranium enrichment endeavor comes the added potential risk that Iranian nuclear development will be followed by horizontal nuclear development, as Saudi Arabian authorities may feel their hand is being forced to develop their own nuclear arms program. There is a sense of inevitability when it comes to the weapons development of states like Iran, with the impending threat of nuclear weapon use representing a tectonic shift in the power dimensions of the Middle East. Therefore, for Western leaders, particularly the US, keeping Iranian nuclear development at bay and under control is considered central to deterrence and preventing nuclear proliferation across the Middle East region.
The Iranian government is highly critical of Western policies (particularly those of the US) toward nuclear deterrence. It views Western possession of nuclear weapons as an unacceptable double standard and perceives the use of sanctions as an exercise in power and domination. (Mirza, Abbas, 2022). Furthermore, sanctions targeting Iran since the breakdown in negotiations under the Trump administration have inconvenienced European allies, such as France and Germany, who seek to do business and have major interests in Iran. They have been negatively affected in these endeavors by the climate of sanctions and the state of relations between Iran and the US.
With these concerns considered, the main worry among Western and allied international leaders is that the “lack of transparency and secrecy” surrounding Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities coupled with expansionist policy and demonstrated efforts to reach 60 percent purity has cast a shadow of doubt over Iranian claims about the peaceful nature of its nuclear program (al-Harby, 2022). The potential effects of a non-peaceful Iranian approach to nuclear weapons add an unwanted dimension to the security considerations of Western leaders in the Middle East. Yet, Iran possessing nuclear weapons seems to be an inevitability further down the line.
Iran is in a state of deepening poor relations with the US and wider Western societies. Beyond the clash between ideals, culture, and methods of governance, there lies a central power dynamic that Iran seeks to maintain and strengthen. It views the enrichment of uranium and the wider push for nuclear armament as being central to upholding and increasing this power dynamic. Recent developments regarding the further enrichment of uranium to 60% and the possibility that Iran will assemble a threatening nuclear arsenal are worrying for Western leaders and many of Iran’s neighboring countries in the Middle East. Time will tell when it comes to Iran’s nuclear expansionism, but as things are at present; the West and its allies remain far from brokering any kind of new deal that will prevent Iran from achieving its goal, and so the outcome that Iran will establish a nuclear arsenal seems inevitable, at least under current circumstances.
Source » snoqap