In news that could either fizzle out or become a flashpoint, Iran apparently harassed an IAEA inspector, briefly detaining her and commandeering travel documents.
That’s according to diplomats familiar with the situation which is set to be discussed later this week during a hastily-convened meeting of the watchdog’s board of governors. “The agency wants to show how seriously they are taking this. It is a potentially damaging precedent”, a Western source told Reuters.
The revelation comes less than 24 hours after news that Iran plans to inject uranium gas into centrifuges buried in Fordow, the secretive mountain facility which ignited an international incident in 2009, when its existence was unveiled.
“The decision to expand nuclear activities at Fordow is Iran’s most serious violation of the nuclear deal to date”, a report from Eurasia Group reads. “Iran’s latest violation represents a significant escalation, not a continuation of incremental steps away from its nuclear commitments”.
“We know how sensitive they are to the Fordow facility”, Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday, in a televised address.
His speech was obviously designed to extract concessions – that is, Rouhani wasn’t aiming to threaten anyone as much as he was putting Fordow in play as a negotiating tactic. If the US starts “living up to [its] commitments” again, “then we will stop feeding gas to the centrifuges”, he said.
The State department called that extortion. “Iran has no credible reason to expand its uranium enrichment program, at the Fordow facility or elsewhere”, the US said, in a statement. “Other than a clear attempt at nuclear extortion that will only deepen its political and economic isolation”.
As ever, the irony is that the “nuclear blackmail” which Trump cited as the reason for his decision to pull out of the landmark agreement struck under Barack Obama actually wasn’t real – it was a story the president cooked up in order to justify America’s unilateral exit. The fact is, Iran was in compliance certainly with the letter of the agreement, and maybe even with the spirit of the deal.
Now, however, Iran has indeed resorted to a form of “nuclear blackmail”, because Trump (and Mike Pompeo) are attempting to weaponize the dollar and the US financial system in order to bring the Iranian economy to its knees and thereby engineer social unrest and possible regime change.
That’s just the long and the short of this story. It’s unfortunate, but it just is what it is, and over the summer, it led directly to all manner of shenanigans in the Strait of Hormuz, and, ultimately to the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. (Iran denies direct responsibility.)
Tehran has gradually fallen out of compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement in an effort to compel the US to abandon its “maximum pressure” campaign. Over the past six or so months, Iran has breached a stockpile limit on enriched uranium, exceeded the enrichment ceiling and begun enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges.
“On Monday Iran said it was already producing enriched uranium at an ever-faster pace at its primary nuclear enrichment center at Natanz [and] in recent weeks it has also discussed rebuilding a plutonium reactor that was disabled under the agreement before it ever went into operation”, the New York Times notes.
The Fordow facility cannot be destroyed in a single attack, which makes it particularly troublesome for the US and Israel. Although bunker-busting munitions could theoretically cripple it, it would need to be struck multiple times.
Around 2,000 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas were shuttled to Fordow on Wednesday, Iranian state media said. Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, declared that the level of uranium enrichment will reach 4.5% by this weekend.
As the Times went on write Tuesday, “in the negotiations in 2015, the Obama administration sought, and failed, to close the facility entirely [with] one American negotiator conceding that leaving it in place was a ‘bitter pill'”. The condition for letting it stay open was that the centrifuges weren’t injected with gas.
The new activity at the site will be conducted under IAEA supervision, which brings things back to the alleged harassment of an inspector.
“Three diplomats familiar with the agency’s work said the female inspector had her travel documents taken, and two said she was briefly held while working in Iran”, Reuters says, adding that “the incident occurred at Iran’s enrichment site at Natanz last week”.
The problem, obviously, is that this kind of intimidation could make it harder for the IAEA to monitor things going forward at a time when Iran is taking more aggressive steps to put pressure on Europe. France has spearheaded efforts to preserve legal trade and commerce with Tehran, but those efforts (including the establishment of a special purpose vehicle) have been undermined by US sanctions.
One of those things is true.