Iran parliament backs nuclear enrichment

Iran’s parliament has approved plans to dramatically increase its nuclear enrichment programme in contravention of its agreement with global powers as the Islamic regime reels from the aftermath of the assassination of the mastermind of its alleged military programme.

Last week’s killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Islamic republic’s top nuclear scientist, has escalated tensions in a difficult period ahead of the US presidential transition.

In a sign of the deep divisions between the hardliners in parliament and moderates, the centrist government of President Hassan Rouhani immediately opposed the move. Centrists say such a move could harm their chances of resuming talks with the US.

President-elect Joe Biden is keen to restart talks over the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and global powers that President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018. Mr Trump’s reimposition of sanctions against Iran prompted the republic to boost its nuclear activities. Mr Biden has promised to go back to the deal provided Iran returns to full compliance. Iran has blamed Israel, which opposes the resumption of talks, for the assassination. Speculation has been rife as to how Iran will react.

As part of the plan put forward in parliament, the Islamic republic is to enrich uranium up to 20 per cent purity, higher than the current purity of up to 4.5 per cent and in violation of the 3.67 per cent level permitted under the nuclear accord. The plan also says Iran should keep 120kg of it at home for “the country’s needs for peaceful purposes”.

That level of enrichment would accelerate the country’s ability to produce weapons-grade uranium of 90 per cent, a development the nuclear accord — signed by the US under Barack Obama, Germany, the UK, France, China and Russia — aimed to prevent. The parliament’s new measures, if implemented, will largely put Iran back to where it was before the deal.

Hassan Rouhani’s opposition to nuclear enrichment is a sign of the deep divisions between the hardliners and moderates in parliament © Iranian Presidency/dpa

If restrictions on Iran’s banking transactions and crude sales are not lifted by early January — before Mr Biden takes office — Iran will also decrease the access it has given to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, according to the plan approved by parliament.

“The parliament has sent this message to the enemies of the Islamic Iran that the one-way game is over,” said Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the hardline parliament Speaker who is tipped to run for president next year. Members of parliament chanted “death to the US” and “death to Israel” when they voted for the scheme.

But the government, the foreign ministry and the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran unanimously called the parliament’s move unnecessary and not useful. Ali Rabiei, the government spokesman, said it was the responsibility of the Supreme National Security Council, the top security body, to make nuclear decisions not parliament.

“The revolutionary parliament . . . can pass any law it wishes even in nuclear issues, but it cannot implement whatever it wants,” said Hamid Aboutalebi, a former adviser to Mr Rouhani for political affairs.

But Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a hardline politician, said Iran had no choice. He shrugged off the impact of the move on negotiations with the US and said if hardliners swept to power in the June presidential election, there would be no talks anyway.

Iran has always denied that it has a nuclear military programme. According to an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security last month, “Iran’s estimated breakout time as of early November 2020 is as short as 3.5 months” and the country “would require, in total, as little as 5.5 to 6 months to produce enough weapon-grade uranium for two nuclear weapons”.

Iran has previously threatened to enrich uranium by as much as 20 per cent, but failed to follow through. It is not clear how far the hardliners will push to accelerate nuclear activities. The parliamentary approval made clear that if the concerned authorities did not carry out the plan, they would face punishment of up to 25 years in prison.

“Considering the way hardliners have been behaving . . . we should pray for Trump to come back,” said Abbas Abdi, a reformist commentator, in a post on Twitter. They “are more dangerous than Trump for Iran”.

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