New Delhi: The European signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Tuesday triggered the protocol to resolve breaches following Iran’s announcement Monday of violating the uranium enrichment limit of 3.67 per cent.
France, the UK, Germany, Russia and China have called a ‘Joint Commission’, a process that may eventually lead to a “snap back” of international sanctions removed three years ago if Iran does not reverse its actions.
This is the second breach by Iran after it produced more enriched uranium in May than permitted under the deal. The deal restricted Iran to stockpiling not more than 300 kg of low-enriched uranium. Low-enriched uranium can be used to produce fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.
Iran said the breaches were in response to the re-imposition of US sanctions in 2018, which has taken a huge toll on its economy. A meeting has been scheduled by 15 July to resolve this issue.
As fears grow over Iran’s nuclear activities, ThePrint takes a look at the present situation and how close the country is to making a nuclear bomb.
Before the deal
Before the JCPOA came into effect in 2015, Iran had a highly-developed nuclear program, which was making headway into producing both Uranium-235 and plutonium — the only two elements capable of nuclear fission required to harness nuclear power.
The useful isotope of uranium is known as Uranium-235 — that can be adapted to fuel power stations or produce nuclear bombs.
Uranium enrichment is the process by which the percentage composition of the isotope Uranium-235 is increased. Natural uranium has only 0.7 per cent Uranium-235 isotope and needs to be enriched up to 90 per cent to make nuclear weapons.
According to a January 2016 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran was able to enrich uranium by up to 20 per cent in 2015. That year, Iran also completed building nuclear reactors that could manufacture plutonium. This was, however, halted by the deal.
However, Iran was allowed to carry out research and development of advanced devices that are used to enrich uranium.
How close Iran is to making a nuclear bomb
Today, Iran is quite capable of producing highly-enriched uranium quickly.
According to former deputy chief of IAEA Olli Heinonen, Iran could produce weapon-grade uranium in “half a year, seven to eight months maximum, if they put everything into it”.
However, Iran is still far from being able to use this weapon-grade uranium as a bomb. Iran needs to do a lot of things before it can produce a nuclear bomb such as creating a device to put the enriched uranium into it, come up with a technology to control and spark the chain reaction explosion of the nucleus, and a device to carry and deliver the bomb.
The stand of European nations
Since 2015, the IAEA has confirmed that Iran’s uranium enrichment had not exceeded the limit set by the deal. But, Iran now threatened to breach the enrichment level — first to 5 per cent, and, in 60 days, to 20 per cent if the EU is unable to improve Instex to protect Iran from the US sanctions.
Instex, or the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchange, is a special purpose system created in January 2019 between France, Germany and the UK to facilitate non-dollar trade with Iran. Instex was created to allow international companies an avenue to trade with Iran, circumventing the US sanctions.
However, most companies have been too intimidated to use Instex for anything beyond food and medicines — items that are not on the US sanctions’ list.
Former French ambassador to Tehran François Nicoullaud has said these deliberate violations of the nuclear deal have been “above all a cry for help from Iran to its partners to help it out of its growing economic problems as a result of the US sanctions.”
Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on phone and expressed his “strong concern” over the consequences of breaking away from the deal.
A French Presidency statement said the two leaders had agreed “to explore by 15 July the conditions for the resumption of dialogue between all parties”.
These efforts — between the EU and Iran, rather than the EU and the US — are indicative of the split between the two western powers over Iran. France and the rest of Europe seem to be looking to build a relationship with Iran, independent of the US.
How Iran’s neighbours reacted
Iran’s neighbours, both Saudi Arabia and Israel, are pushing the US to maintain its sanctions and end Iran’s nuclear programs altogether.
Saudi Arabia has always been less worried about Iran’s nuclear programs and more concerned over the regional hegemony it may establish by using terrorism and subversion.
Israel, on the other hand, has compared Iran’s breaches of the nuclear deal to the Nazis occupation of the Rhineland.
These condemnations are rather ironic considering Israel is the only nuclear power in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, too, has invested in nuclear programs, and is in discussion with the US for an agreement that may allow it to produce enriched uranium.
As of now, all eyes are on the meeting by 15 July, which may decide the fate of the nuclear deal.