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IRAN’S URANIUM ENRICHMENT CAPACITY REACHES RECORD HIGH

Amy McGee, Claire Bracco, Christine Saddy, Hae Lim Park, Isaiah Johnson, Julia Tsarnas, Michael Grimaldi, Nereida Pérez

Justin Maurina, Editor; Shachi Gokhale, Senior Editor

December 23, 2022


Iranian Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant[1]


Geographical Area | Middle East

Countries Affected | Iran


Iran recently reached a record-high level of 60% uranium enrichment capability, only one technical step away from the enrichment level needed for weapons-grade uranium. Iran’s enrichment capacity was limited to a lower level of 4% by the Iranian nuclear deal, but after the US withdrawal from the agreement, the Iranian government began improving its nuclear enrichment capabilities.[2] Iran has also started enriching its uranium in underground facilities that are harder to attack, causing suspicion from Western nations.[3] Western nations will likely place increased economic pressure on Iran as a response. Iran will also likely continue its uranium enrichment unless another agreement occurs or the government undergoes extreme domestic or international pressure, likely from sanctions or similar actions.


Security Risk Level:

Areas of High Security Concern: Iran will very likely continue enriching uranium, placing its capacity close to weapons-grade levels of 90% purity. Iran will almost certainly upgrade its technical capabilities to expedite uranium enrichment, likely by increased usage of new IR-6 centrifuges, which are better suited to changing levels between batches of uranium. Iranian nuclear advancements will very likely prevent a nuclear deal revival, almost certainly discouraging powers like the US and the European Union (EU) from resuming talks. Iran’s capacity to build a nuclear bomb could very likely lead to an arms race in the Middle East, very likely prompting neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia to follow suit. A stalled nuclear deal will likely increase divisions within Iranian society due to the economic consequences of their nuclear program and likely lead to civil unrest. Iran will very likely continue hindering the International Atomic Energy Agency‘s (IAEA’s) monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities, likely by reducing IAEA access to nuclear facilities and withholding information regarding their nuclear progress, almost certainly preventing it from accurately assessing Iran’s developments. The lack of IAEA monitoring Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and waste disposal will likely endanger lives near the facilities.

Current Claims: Iran; US; Western nations; International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); EU; Saudi Arabia; Israel; Kazakhstan; Russia; United Arab Emirates (UAE); China; Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); Iran Nuclear Management Waste Company; Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Current Conflicts: Iran has been enriching uranium to 60% at a plant for more than a year. It has now started to enrich uranium at an increased rate in a second plant. Nonproliferation experts state that enrichment to 60% purity is only a technical step away from reaching a weapons-grade of 90%, creating the capability for a nuclear weapon.[4]

Major Capital Industries: nuclear industry; uranium mining industry; defense industry

Potential Industry Concerns: The potential nuclear weapons development from Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities will very likely increase arms proliferation within competing regional countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Government agencies are likely to increase surveillance around nuclear power plants worldwide to combat attempts from foreign actors attempting to steal refinement technology through digital means like hacking. In response, Iran will very likely attempt to acquire nuclear refinement technology through countries that it shares a more neutral relationship, such as Kazakhstan. Iran will likely begin to stockpile uranium as its enrichment capacity increases, leading to a high demand in the uranium mining industry. With an increased capacity for producing nuclear weaponry, Iran will very likely disregard the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) measures encouraging nuclear nonproliferation. Further violations of the JCPOA will likely increase security concerns within the nuclear industry, encouraging nuclear powers in the region, such as Israel, to strengthen their arsenal as well.


Areas of Caution:

  • Geopolitical: Senior European and US diplomats warned that diplomatic talks are in danger due to Iran’s increased uranium stockpiles. Russian officials stated that these statements were made too early and found no fault in Iran’s response to negotiations.[5] In response to Western sanctions, Russia reduced its role as a mediator in new nuclear deal negotiations. After the invasion of Ukraine, Russia and Iran negotiated economic and military agreements due to Western sanctions placed on both countries.[6] Given the economic and military agreements, North Korea, China, and Kazakhstan are also sources of non-sanctioned funding. Senior US officials named Iran Russia’s largest source of arms after Iran exported Shahed-136 drones to aid in Russia’s war with Ukraine.[7] In a recent US visit to Israel, both countries agreed that if Iran demonstrates the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, it will necessitate a "Plan B" against Iran.[8]

  • Political: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that the US must lift all sanctions against Iran before returning to the 2015 JCPOA. He warned future Iranian presidential candidates that they should expect to govern with sanctions and base their economic plans around them.[9] International sanctions have taken a toll on the Iranian economy and hurt public trust in the government, resulting in Iran dropping the demand to remove the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in the US.[10] As a result, Iran is using the progress of its nuclear program as diplomatic leverage in international negotiations to end sanctions placed on Iran.[11]

  • Military: Iran stockpiled more than 18 times the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal, according to a leaked report by the IAEA.[12] Considering the current stockpile, Iran needs only a few months to create a nuclear arsenal. These weapons would be limited in number and efficiency due to Iran’s reliance on uranium imports.[13] Kazakhstan is one of the few sources that Iran can import uranium by bypassing sanctions.[14] Iran has recently upgraded its centrifuges, allowing them to create more refined uranium without informing the IAEA.[15]

  • Economic: The US placed economic sanctions on Iran due to their support of terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the IRGC and their refusal to decrease their nuclear program.[16] US sanctions significantly impacted Iranian society, increasing unemployment and creating shortages of consumer products.[17] The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects the unemployment rate in Iran will exceed 10% by the end of 2022.[18] Despite these sanctions, Iran continued to sell their oil to finance their government and the IRGC.[19] Iran’s strategic position in the Strait of Hormuz allows them to control the flow of trade, effectively regulating the uranium shipments entering the region from Central Asia and Eastern Europe.[20]

  • Social: In Iran, there is a continuous battle between hard-line religious clerics and moderates, with hard-liners opposed to the deal.[21] Human rights and religious groups advocate that human rights are more important than a nuclear deal, which has led to an increased amount of protests and civil unrest.[22] Iran has targeted women and individuals in the LGBTQ community, arresting them for perceived violations of law.[15] Just 42% of Iranians approve of the nuclear agreement made in 2015 between the P5+1 nations.[23] The majority (90%) of Iranians want the country to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but not nuclear weapons.[17]

  • Emergency Management: The Iran Nuclear Management Waste Company is the only waste management company in Iran. They operate under the IAEA standards.[24] For liquid residue, Iran results in the Cementation of Residue.[18] Soil and rock tests are completed at disposal sites to ensure proper waste management is followed.[18] The IAEA has found uranium particles at a site in the Turquzabad district, located near habitable land, leading to an increased danger to the community.[25]

  • Health: Over the past years, several blasts and accidents have occurred at Iranian nuclear plants, such as the blast at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment complex in April 2021.[26] Explosions at nuclear sites and consequent release of radiation levels can cause severe health issues for individuals living near the facilities, including burnt skin and radiation syndrome, as well as long-term diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases.[27] Nuclear waste produced in the refinement of uranium also presents a significant health risk to the local inhabitants and the environment.[28] Negative health complications associated with radiation are generational and require long-term care.[29]

  • Development: The lifting of sanctions, including the EU oil embargo and a reduction in Iran’s trade costs, will improve Iran’s economy and encourage foreign investors.[30] Economic sanctions after 2018 boosted inflation, devalued the national currency and increased consumer prices of goods and services. US sanctions are one of the main reasons for slowing down the development of Iran’s oil and gas sector, alongside a lack of foreign investment.[31]


Predictive Analysis:

  • Who: Iran has very likely expanded its stockpile of enriched uranium to gain more regional influence. The government’s decision likely comes as retaliation for the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and Western economic sanctions on Iran and will likely use the program to gain leverage in negotiation talks with the US and EU to remove economic sanctions. The Iranian government will likely gain more concessions in negotiations as its trade relations with Russia strengthen its position. Iranian citizens will almost certainly support Iran returning to nuclear deal talks and easing sanctions on the country’s crippled economy.

  • What: Iran will likely launch cyberattacks against Israel, other Gulf countries, and Western nations in response to undermining attempts against its nuclear program. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will likely develop stronger military relations to counter Iran's nuclear program, and influence in the region. Israel will very likely increase its espionage campaign against Iran by targeting Iranian nuclear infrastructure and scientists.

  • Why: Iran’s development of nuclear weapons will likely be due to its current foreign policy of provoking and hampering Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Iran will very likely use its nuclear arsenal as an effective deterrent against direct US and Israeli intervention. This will very likely strengthen Iran’s geopolitical influence and increase support for additional sanctions due to the lack of declared nuclear powers in the Middle East which can effectively check and deter Iran.

  • When: Iran will likely possess nuclear weapons in the next 1-5 years. Iran will very likely develop nuclear weapons gradually rather than suddenly announcing nuclear capabilities due to the diplomatic and military risk. Iran will unlikely assemble a complete missile to claim plausible deniability while retaining nuclear weapon capabilities. Iran will likely continue maintaining the diplomatic leverage that its enrichment program has against international sanctions and its role in the JCPOA for the foreseeable future.

  • How: Iran will almost certainly rely on its centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, including IR-1, IR-2m, IR-4, and IR-6 centrifuges, to enrich weapon-grade uranium. Guidance systems and ignition for a nuclear missile would very likely need to be newly manufactured by external actors such as Kazakhstan and Russia. Further sanctions will unlikely prevent Iran from acquiring weapons as Tehran will likely find alternative means of obtaining uranium. Iran will likely purchase uranium from neighboring Kazakhstan in exchange for military and energy technologies as it continues supplying weapons to Russia for its ongoing conflicts.


The WATCH/GSOC Team recommends that nations along the Strait of Hormuz, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE collaborate to take strategic control of the trade flow entering the region. We also recommend the US continue enforcing current sanctions against Iran and impose new mechanisms to dissuade further violations of the JCPOA nuclear deal. The IAEA and P5+1 countries are also advised to negotiate with Iran’s security partners, such as Russia, China, and Turkey, to help mediate a new nuclear deal. Regional countries are advised to sign new nonproliferation treaties to prevent the future adoption of nuclear weapons. Global human rights organizations should provide services by advocating for policy reforms and providing legal services. Iran is highly advised to allow for IAEA’s inspections to monitor Iran’s current and future uranium enrichment program as well as ensure Iran’s compliance with safety protocols. The IAEA should conduct randomized tests of soils and rock surrounding the nuclear facilities to ensure proper waste management and disposal are followed.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue monitoring this issue for future developments. CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crimes, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H) Officers will monitor future developments in Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities.

 

[1]Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant” By Hossein Ostovar Licensed under CC BY 4.0

[2] Iranian atomic official says uranium enrichment capacity hits record highs, The Times of Israel, December 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/iranian-atomic-official-says-uranium-enrichment-capacity-hits-record-highs/

[3] Iran starts enriching uranium to 60% purity at Fordow plant, Reuters, November 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-enrich-uranium-60-purity-fordow-nuclear-site-tv-2022-11-22

[4] Iran planning massive expansion of uranium capacity - UN nuclear watchdog, The Guardian, November 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/nov/23/iran-planning-massive-expansion-of-uranium-capacity-un-nuclear-watchdog

[5] Europeans: No more flexibility on Iran Deal, United States Institute for Peace, September 2022, https://iranprimer.usip.org/index.php/blog/2022/sep/12/europeans-no-more-flexibility-iran-deal

[6] Don’t expect any more Russian help on the Iran nuclear deal, War on the Rocks, November 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/11/dont-expect-any-more-russian-help-on-the-iran-nuclear-deal/

[7] US: Iran now Russia's top arms source, United States Institute for Peace, December 2022, https://iranprimer.usip.org/index.php/blog/2022/dec/09/us-iran-now-russias-top-arms-source-0

[8] Biden captures Israeli hearts, Al-Monitor, July 2022, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/07/biden-captures-israeli-hearts?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=daily%207152022%20July%2015%202022%201123&utm_content=daily%207152022%20July%2015%202022%201123+CID_ecb3ec12575103fe8d48737997a81766&utm_source=campmgr&utm_term=Biden%20captures%20Israeli%20hearts

[9] Iran: Khamenei demands US scrap sanctions, Deutsche Welle (DW), March 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/iran-khamenei-demands-us-scrap-sanctions/a-56946603

[10] Iran Nuclear Deal Progress, CNN, August 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/08/19/politics/iran-nuclear-deal-progress/index.html

[11] Is Iran building its own nuclear bomb?, Deutsche Welle (DW), September 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/iran-how-close-is-it-to-building-its-own-nuclear-bomb/a-63108224

[12] Part 1: Iran Accelerates Nuclear Program, United States Institute for Peace, July 2022, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2022/jun/07/iran-accelerates-nuclear-program

[13] How Close is Iran to the Bomb?, Brandeis University, August 2022, https://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/middle-east-briefs/pdfs/101-200/meb149.pdf

[14] Kazakhstan’s contribution to the settlement of Iranian nuclear programme issue, Asian Times, May 2016 https://astanatimes.com/2016/05/kazakhstans-contribution-to-settlement-of-iranian-nuclear-programme-issue/

[15] IAEA: Iran upgrades its uranium enrichment tech, Deutsche Welle (DW), July 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/iran-switches-to-advanced-centrifuges-for-uranium-enrichment-iaea/a-62420048

[16] Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah coordinated Gaza fighting in join war room - report, Times of Israel, May 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/iran-hamas-and-hezbollah-coordinated-gaza-fighting-in-joint-war-room-report/

[17] Economic and socioeconomic consequences of US sanctions on Iran, Iram Center, March 2020, https://iramcenter.org/en/economic-and-socioeconomic-consequences-of-us-sanctions-on-iran/?send_cookie_permissions=OK

[18] IMF: Iran’s Unemployment to Exceed 10 Percent in 2022-23, Financial Tribune, April 2022, https://financialtribune.com/articles/domestic-economy/113272/imf-iran-s-unemployment-to-exceed-10-percent-in-2022-23

[19] Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Council on Foreign Relations, May 2019, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/irans-revolutionary-guards

[20] Strait of Hormuz - Iranian Military, Strauss Center, August 2008, https://www.strausscenter.org/strait-of-hormuz-iranian-military/

[21] The Iran Nuclear deal—facts, issues, stakeholders, and Australian policy: a quick guide, Parliament of Australia, October 2017, https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/library/prspub/5569381/upload_binary/5569381.pdf

[22]Iran, U.S. clash at U.N. on nuclear deal, human rights issues, Reuters, September 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/iran-insists-us-should-provide-guarantees-revival-2015-nuclear-pact-2022-09-21/

[23] Majority of Iranians Oppose Development of Nuclear Weapons, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, March 2020, https://globalaffairs.org/research/public-opinion-survey/majority-iranians-oppose-development-nuclear-weapons

[24] Regional Meeting on the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, Atomic Energy Org. of Iran (AEOI), November 2013, https://ansn.iaea.org/Common/Topics/OpenTopic.aspx?ID=13521

[25] Iran nuclear deal: IAEA finds uranium particles at undeclared site, BBC, November 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50382219

[26] Blackout Hits Iran Nuclear Site in What Appears to Be Israeli Sabotage, The New York Times, April 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/11/world/middleeast/iran-nuclear-natanz.html

[27] Radiation Health Effects, United States Environmental Protection Agency, June 2022, https://www.epa.gov/radiation/radiation-health-effects

[28] How Kazakhstan Fought Back Against Soviet Nuclear Tests, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/02/14/how-kazakhstan-fought-back-against-soviet-nuclear-tests-pub-86404#:~:text=Studies%20conducted%20by%20Kazakhstan's%20Institute,and%20cancer%2Drelated%20mortality%20risks.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Lifting Economic Sanctions on Iran: Global Effects and Strategic Responses, World Bank, February 2016, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/iran/publication/lifting-economic-sanctions-on-iran

[31] Iran’s Economy under Sanctions: Two Levels of Impact, Russia in Global Affairs, October 2022, https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/articles/iran-under-sanctions/

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