Its pre-emptive actions to resume enriching uranium to 20 per cent purity at Fardo, near its most holy city Qom, located only 90 km (55 miles) southwest of Tehran is a step in defiance of 2015 the Nuclear deal with a group of US-led western allies.
Iran has been pushed to a corner both on international as well as domestic fronts as a consequence of harsh economic sanctions imposed on it since 2018. (Photo source: Reuters)
By BRIG N K Bhatia,
Iran has started the New Year by exacerbating the fragile and delicately poised situation in the Persian Gulf region by initiating the first step of its defiance to a deal that had shackled its nuclear programme and prevented it from enriching weapons-grade uranium.
Its pre-emptive actions to resume enriching uranium to 20 per cent purity at Fardo, near its most holy city Qom, located only 90 km (55 miles) southwest of Tehran is a step in defiance of 2015 the Nuclear deal with a group of US-led western allies. More so, Iranian action of resumption of uranium enrichment is more out of vengeance against US-led economic sanctions imposed in 2018 after the abandonment of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which have nearly crippled the Iranian economy and heaped scores of miseries on its hapless population.
Iranian alibi to resume uranium enrichment is shielded behind a ‘new law’ passed by its parliament in the aftermath of the assassination of its nuclear scientist Mohsin Fakrezadeh in late November in a very complicated operation using electronic equipment with no one at the scene by use of a remotely controlled automatic machine gun, probably controlled by a satellite.
The killing of the nuclear scientist was the second assassination within a year that had been preceded by assassination of Gen Qassem Solemani in January 2020. Both high ranking officials were linked with Iranian Revolutionary Guard and closely linked to the ruling establishment.
It maybe recalled that Iran in 2015 after prolonged discussions had concluded an agreement with USA, UK, France, China, Russia & Germany and made commitments set out in a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to limit its clandestine nuclear activities and allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions. Iran had accordingly agreed to reduce its uranium stockpile to just 300 Kgs and similarly drastically cut the number of centrifuges to 1,044 to be used only for peaceful purposes in fields of medicine, agriculture, industry and science. It had also agreed to stop production of weapons-grade plutonium or build heavy water reactors.
However, during the course of 2020 Iran had begun to deliberately and publicly renege on the commitments it had made to the IAEA and agreement partners as an act of retaliation against the US actions against it. Iran’s admission, therefore, confirming to commencement of feeding uranium already enriched up to 4.1 per cent U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment up to 20 per cent, is therefore reconfirmation of what had been earlier confirmed by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in a report to its member states.
Commencement of uranium enrichment is not the only challenge that Iran has posed in the New Year. In another action on 05 January, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard seized a South Korean-flagged ship, MT Hankuk Chemi, passing through the Strait of Hormuz of Persian Gulf and destined for Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates and carrying a huge amount of chemicals (ethanol). The seizure of the ship was ostensibly for violation of environmental laws and causing chemical pollution, although it now transpires that Iranian action to seize the ship is to pressurise South Korea to release approximately US $ 7 billion of Iranian money held in South Korean banks due to economic sanctions.
The immediate result of Iranian actions is the increase in tensions leading to staying put of USS Nimitz aircraft carrier group in Persian Gulf. The carrier group was scheduled to head back to the US. In another show of strength, the US also flew B-52 bombers over the region to warn Iran of the consequences of its actions.
Iran has been pushed to a corner both on international as well as domestic fronts as a consequence of harsh economic sanctions imposed on it since 2018.
The Iranian economy has suffered a huge recession; there is a high rate of inflation and its currency has depreciated because of sanctions on the export of its petroleum products which accounted for almost 80% of its export revenue. Consequently, the impact of sanctions has been felt on the domestic front leading to shortages and increase in prices of food grains and other essential commodities. Similarly, the impact of Covid pandemic has had a devastating impact on the Iranian population which is faced with a shortage of medicines and international help.
All business with Iranian entities and banks has almost ceased as a result of economic sanctions due to fear of US reprisals, almost totally stopping international trade giving rise to mushrooming of the black market.
However, it was targeting of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCGC) by the USA in terms of elimination of its key entities close to ruling dispensation and it’s Shia proxies that have left Iran fuming with anger. The economic sanctions have also had a crippling impact on activities of IRCGC as it is known to control a good many contracts and industries within Iran.
Iranian retaliatory actions against the US and its allies during the last one year, such as the firing of ballistic missiles and rocket attacks on targets in Iraq, the launch of a reconnaissance satellite Noor, threatening activities of IRCGS’s naval boats against western ships failed to have any significant impact on US interests or its allies in the region.
Iran’s latest actions are therefore being seen as pressure tactics on the incoming US administration to enter into fresh dialogue to get out of the stranglehold of sanctions.
The Iranian actions show its despondency and frustration on being unable to break out of isolation. The main reason for its fresh wave of belligerence is also as much an outcome of domestic compulsions, where ruling dispensation of President Rouhani is facing unprecedented public anger against its policies and actions. With elections due in the middle of the current year the desperation of ruling dispensation will only increase, and force it to undertake irrational steps to please its domestic constituency.
(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.)