Is Iran really breaking the uranium enrichment limit set by the 2015 nuclear agreement? Is a ‘secret atomic warehouse’ in Tehran really at work, as alleged by Benjamin Netanyahu? Well, samples collected by IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog, from the warehouse have shown traces of uranium, according to two diplomats who follow the watchdog’s inspections work closely. This is what raises suspicion – more so because Tehran has not come out with any explanations sought by the IAEA about the origin of the particles in question. While both the diplomats insist that the traces were of uranium, one of them says the uranium was not enriched to a level anywhere close to what is needed for weapons.
The questionable traces may well be the remnants of activities that predate the nuclear deal reached between Iran and P5+1 together with the EU, but Tehran’s quiet over the matter is likely to stoke tensions with Washington. The deal has been dead, in practical terms, since President Trump pulled out of it May 2018, leading to US sanctions causing cut in Iranian oil sales. The other parties to the deal are, however, reluctant to follow the US, in their bid to keep the country engaged.
If recent statements from the US and Iran are taken on face value, no side wants a military conflict. The return to diplomacy may not be easy, however. The US wants a better nuclear deal that requires Iran to abandon its enrichment programme completely, limit its ballistic missile capabilities, and change its behavior in the Middle East — conditions that Iran is highly unlikely to accept. The US, in the meanwhile, is tightening economic screws on Iran by cutting off its oil exports, in the hope to see it back on the dialogue table. But if Iran refuses to accept the US demands and continues to expand its nuclear programme, the Trump administration will only be left with two options: to accept the growing risk of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, or to use military force to stop it.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2019.