Iran’s Surprising Decision to Slow Down its Nuclear Program: What’s the Strategy Behind the Move?

After sending strong signals between November 2023 and January 2024 about its nuclear weapons program, why did Iran suddenly slow down this month?

Is there a larger policy change from the Islamic Republic? Or is Tehran playing games before the IAEA Board of Governors meeting from March 4-8?

On Monday, the IAEA reported Iran reduced its stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium by 6.8 kilograms (kg), after continuously growing since early 2021.

On one hand, this is a significant move. Iran is not only complying with the West’s request to freeze 60% highly enriched uranium progress but going beyond by reducing the existing stock.

60% enriched uranium is only one level away from the 90% weaponized level.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei views the Iran nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran June 11, 2023. (credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS)

Symbolically meaningful, but not significant in practice

While meaningful symbolically, the statistical change is not worth much.

The reduction was from 128.3 kg to 121.5 kg, leaving Iran with enough enriched uranium at the 60% level that if it jumped to 90%, it could have enough weaponized uranium for three nuclear weapons in a week or so.

Additionally, some diluted uranium was only diluted to the 20% level, and other uranium enrichment at the 20% level increased from 567 kg. to 712 kg.

It is estimated Tehran has enough enriched uranium at the 20% level to develop another four nuclear weapons if it decided to try for a “nuclear breakout.”

Combined, even after Iran’s backward move, it still has significant enriched uranium quantities to reach seven to 10 nuclear bombs worth of uranium within a couple of months.

The major jump for enriching uranium is from low enriched levels of three or five percent up to 20%, according to nuclear scientists.

From 20%, the qualitative distance to 90% is shorter than the distance to get to 20%.

Iran expelled IAEA inspectors in September

That is not the only problem the Islamic Republic has not addressed.

In September 2023, it expelled the eight most important IAEA inspectors (according to IAEA Chief Rafael Grossi.) These were the same inspectors who caught Iran enriching up to 84% in one nuclear facility in February 2022.

Also, the ayatollahs violated a deal with the IAEA to restore much of the camera surveillance access to its facilities, which it took away in early 2021 and again in mid-2022.

Moreover, Tehran is not trying to answer IAEA questions about military aspects of its nuclear program, which the Mossad revealed from Iranian nuclear secrets seized in a 2018 raid in Tehran.

Finally, on Wednesday, it was reported Iran’s Information and Communications Minister Issa Zarepour had told state media that a Russian space launch vehicle will send an Iranian satellite to space later this week.

As usual with Iranian space launches, questions arise about whether there could be dual-use technology involved leading to advances in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program.

Most focus has been on whether Tehran could weaponize enough uranium for a nuclear bomb.

A billboard with a photo of a new hypersonic ballistic missile called ”Fattah” with text reading ”400 seconds to Tel Aviv” is seen in Tehran, Iran June 8, 2023 (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

Iran is also pursuing delivery mechanisms

Another key element for nuclear weapons is the ability to deliver or fire the weapon at a target.

In December 2023, Tehran launched a rocket with a test living space capsule as part of its plans to send astronauts into space.

The report said the capsule reached an altitude of 130 kilometers.

In September 2023, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) successfully launched a third satellite into low orbit.

The satellite was the third version of the imaging satellite Noor, placed in an orbit 450 kilometers above Earth.

In August 2022, an Iranian-owned and Russian-built satellite capable of taking high-resolution photos was launched by a mixed Russian-Iranian project from Kazakhstan.

All these indicate Iranian progress in delivering nuclear weapons if it moves in that direction.

Based on the above, Iran made a tactical retreat to avoid harsh censure from the IAEA Board next week.

By providing a concession to the IAEA and the West, it will be harder for the Board to censure Tehran, let alone refer the issue to the UN Security Council for a real confrontation.

Iran may also be somewhat deflated by US and allies’ attacks on its proxies in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, as well as Israeli victories against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

However, for Iran to reduce the threat it poses, it needs to reduce or ship out more of its uranium stock and address the numerous other issues suggesting its intentions are nefarious.