Iran FM Confirms Uranium Enrichment to 20%

Netanyahu accuses Iran of attempting to produce nuclear arms

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif confirmed on Monday that the Iranian nuclear agency was given the go-ahead to begin enriching uranium at Fordow to 20%. Iran had already informed the IAEA of this, and Zarif noted it would be easily reversible if a deal is reached calling for it to be ended.

This is the first time since the P5+1 nuclear deal went into place they’ve attempted to enrich to these levels. The 3.5% enriched uranium is used to fuel the Bushehr power plant, while fuel rods from the 20% uranium are used to produce medical isotopes at the Tehran Research Reactor.

Iran stopped 20% enrichment under the nuclear deal, and intended to ultimately replace the Tehran Research Reactor with a newer Arak Heavy Water reactor, one which is under redesign.

Though 20% is the highest level of enrichment Iran has ever attempted, it is still well below the 90% needed to attempt weaponization. That isn’t to say that Iran isn’t being accused of trying to make arms, as facts never get in the way of that accusation.

And if someone’s going to make accusations about Iran, Israel is always the safe bet. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu falsely claimed 20% is just a “short step” from 90%, and says the very attempt is “proof” Iran seeks nuclear weapons.

Iran has ruled out seeking such arms, and the IAEA has repeatedly confirmed that Iran is not funneling any of its uranium to any non-approved use. The use of 20% in the Tehran reactor is sub-optimal in this day and age, but reflective of a site built by the US generations ago.

Hawkish former inspector David Albright went even further, claiming Iran’s breakout time in November was “as short as 3.5 months.” This was based on an assumption that Iran used all of its advanced centrifuges, including all those removed long ago under the nuclear deal.

Iran has enriched to 20% before, and likely can do so successfully again. Going any higher would be untested ground for the nation, and would have to be attempted with IAEA safeguards in place, meaning it could not be done in secret. Beyond that Iran would also have to make deliverable weapons, something they’ve similarly not attempted. All of this would be complicated and time-consuming, and there is no sign Iran is even attempting any of it. 

At the end of the process, Iran would presumably have to prove it had a working weapon with a test detonation. Beyond such a test starting an immediate, regional war, it would also use all or most of Iran’s stockpiled uranium, bringing them back to square one.

All of this is irrelevant, as Iran has ruled out even attempting weaponization. The reason Zarif emphasizes reversibility of the process, indeed, is because Iran is expecting deals with the Biden Administration which will resolve existing disputes and call for them to reverse certain recent measures in return for sanctions relief.

The Rouhani government in Iran objected to the latest move in the first place, but Iran’s parliament required it after Israel assassinated a top Iranian scientist. Even then, Iranian officials are careful to note that these are a show of disapproval as opposed to a genuine change in policy.

With Trump hawkish and Biden more open to diplomacy, Iran clearly would prefer to hold off on these issues for the change. This is likely also why Israel launched the assassination ahead of time, trying to bring things to a head before inauguration.

While the Iranian moves are clearly well short of the war-starting effort Israel was hoping for, Netanyahu is presenting them as such anyhow, clearly not giving up on happening into a long-sought Iran War.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is senior editor of