A funds-starved Iran ups the ante in its conflict with the U.S. by increasing uranium enrichment activity and escalating tensions in the Strait of Hormuz

Published : January 07, 2021 18:41 IST

A file handout picture released by Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation on November 6, 2019, shows the interior of the Fordow (Fordo) Uranium Conversion Facility in Qom, in the north of the country. Photo: AFP

The seizure, on January 4, of a South Korean tanker near the Strait of Hormuz is yet another sign that Iran’s hard-line leadership, reeling under crippling international economic sanctions since 2018, is in no mood to relent from its combative posture vis-à-vis the United States and its allies. Coinciding with the capture of the vessel, the country has begun to raise its uranium enrichment activity from 4 per cent to 20 per cent, in contravention of the 3.67 per cent limit stipulated under the 2015 civilian nuclear agreement, thus narrowing the gap to the 90 per cent purity needed to produce weapons grade fuel. Also, January 3 marks the first anniversary of the assassination of Tehran’s top military leader Gen. Qassem Suleimani in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad, which triggered Iranian ballistic missile strikes on U.S. bases.

The move to raise enriched uranium production, which could pave the way eventually to restore Tehran to the level it had attained prior to the 2015 agreement, was authorised by parliament in early December. That decision came within days of the murder, widely blamed on Israel, of Iran’s foremost nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran. In a concomitant step, parliament also resolved to reduce the access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) if restrictions to Iran’s banking transactions and crude exports were not lifted before the new U.S. administration of President-elect Joseph Biden was sworn in. That was possibly an allusion to Iranian funds to the tune of $7 billion that remain frozen in South Korean banks; one that has been raised in relation to the interception of the South Korean tanker. The head of Tehran’s central bank has observed that attempts to unlock the sums, urgently needed to procure the COVID-19 vaccine, have been hampered by the sanctions regime.

The further enrichment of uranium that began on January 4, despite opposition from President Hassan Rouhani’s centrist government, the Foreign Ministry and the country’s atomic energy organisation, leaves little room for doubt as to who calls the shots in Tehran. Conversely, the hardening of the Iranian position is due no less to the negligible influence that Paris, Berlin and London have been able to exert in order to ensure the implementation of the 2015 agreement in the face of President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. The mechanism the E-three states launched to protect trade with Tehran fell woefully short of the initial capital necessary to meet the country’s requirements. On the expiry of the two-month deadline it had set for a credible economic rescue, Tehran declared in July 2019 that it had breached the treaty limit of enriched uranium stockpile, a development the IAEA confirmed.

Meanwhile, the interception of the South Korean MT Hankuk Chemi, with a 20-member multinational crew on board, carrying thousands of tonnes of ethanol, is the latest escalation in the Strait of Hormuz. The earlier threat to freedom of navigation on this strategic sea route through which a third of global supplies pass every day was in July 2019. In that instance, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) detained two United Kingdom-linked vessels in retaliation against the impounding of its own liner off the Gibraltar coast on suspicion of shipping oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. In the same month, a U.S. warship destroyed an Iranian drone which it claimed had come within dangerously close distance. In May and June of 2019, many tankers had come under alleged Iranian attacks, most notably those involving a Japanese and Norwegian vessel in the Gulf of Oman. The intensifying hostilities led the U.S. to announce “Operation Sentinel,” a coordinated effort among Western nations, to boost maritime security in West Asia.

The incoming Joe Biden administration has expressed readiness to revive the 2015 civilian nuclear deal provided that the Islamic Republic committed itself to full compliance with the provisions. Particularly welcome is the suggestion that Washington returns to the 2015 treaty in its existing format, rather than expand its ambit to cover Iran’s missile programme and its regional ambitions. But Washington still has to reckon with the likelihood that Tehran would not resume negotiations until it saw tangible evidence of relief from the sanctions. The new administration should spare no effort to redeem the nuclear pact, re-engage with Tehran and restore faith in multilateralism.

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