This isn’t completely breaking news. This step was predictable in the light of the law passed by the Iranian Parliament that we have been hearing about since Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s assassination at the end of November.
The move to 20% enrichment was part of what this law mandaded, as it obliges the AEOI to produce at least 120 kg of 20% enriched uranium annually and store it inside the country.
What the law did not say, however, was when this would begin or whether “up to 20%” means all the way 20% or less. Some of those questions remain but today’s development highlights that Iran still feels that it needs to build leverage in advance of Biden taking office — this is about ensuring JCPOA diplomacy is a top priority and focusing the President-elect’s attention with so much else on his mind – COVID, economy, etc.
Rouhani just a few days ago put forward a bylaw that would delay this move – it is unclear what changed within the past few days, but it seems the more conservative camp won over the weekend because of the announcement today which was preemepted by a letter to the IAEA.
When it comes to Iran, the West is worried primarily about capacity and stockpiles. 20% enrichment is about 90% of the work to reach weapons grade highly enriched uranium – and Iran had around 200kg of this at the end of 2013 which then dropped to zero because of the JCPOA.
Recreating a portion of this stockpile is a strong signal to Biden/E3 that continuing maximum pressure has consequences and a return to the JCPOA is the best way forward.
Good news is that Iran is moving in a predictable way, making clear what steps it is taking and following necessary procedures to keep the IAEA informed, and Iran can reverse this step along with the others. Javad Zarif tweeted within the last five minutes stating again that everything will be reversed when all commitments are honored.
No cause to believe that Iran would want to spark a conflict in the last days of Trump presidency but this will inevitably inflame tensions. Best to not overdramatize until more details are clear about the pace at which this enrichment will occur, and to remain focused on JCPOA restoration.