Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Escalation Strategy

Iran (3)

Iran is back in the nuclear game.

In May 2019, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani announced that his country would no longer be bound by the nuclear limits under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known simply as the Iran nuclear deal. Rouhani’s remarks marked the end of a year-long period in which Iran continued implementing the agreement after Washington withdrew from it in May 2018. Throughout the rest of 2019, Iran gradually reduced its compliance with the deal. Meanwhile, the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign starved Iran’s economy, helping fuel nationwide protests in November, which left hundreds dead following a crackdown by security forces.

While ramping up its nuclear activities in contravention of the nuclear deal may seem like an attempt to get a bomb, we don’t think that’s the case. The fact that it is gradually and so publicly violating the deal suggests Iran is, instead, trying to put pressure on the international community to relieve sanctions. Nevertheless, its actions beg the question — what are Iran’s goals? Why has it adopted this strategy? And perhaps most importantly — how far does it intend to go?



Iran is expected to continue to push the nuclear envelope in 2020. If it sticks to its stated schedule of taking a step to reduce its compliance with the JCPOA every two months, Iran will have six more opportunities before the November elections in the United States to increase its nuclear activities. For now, it’s unclear exactly what these steps will entail as the Iranian government has kept these measures close to the chest. But Tehran has already crossed key lines in the agreement, suggesting that if it wants to keep up pressure on the United States and Europe, it might need to go even further in 2020.

The timing is important. America’s response to provocative moves by Iran will have political implications for the 2020 presidential elections. These nuclear steps may accompany and complement continued military action in the Middle East in what’s become a two-pronged approach by Tehran aimed at raising the cost of President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and building leverage vis-à-vis America. These activities have included targeting oil production facilities and shipping in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, and increased aggression by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and in the Arabian peninsula. As we await the first of several potential new steps, it’s important to take stock of what Tehran has done so far to resume nuclear activities restricted or halted by the JCPOA, why it has done so, and to think through what 2020 may bring along.

Iran’s Decision-Making and Calculations

After Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018 and proceeded to implement his administration’s “maximum pressure campaign,” Tehran undertook what it dubbed its “strategic patience” policy. The strategy entailed a continued adherence to the deal by Iran in the hopes that Europe would take steps to undermine America’s new hardline Iran policy. However, a year after the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, it became clear that Europe, while clearly disenchanted by the U.S. approach, was nonetheless unable to effectively counter it. This led Iran to reconsider its own course of action, shifting from a “wait and see” approach to a much more assertive one.

In announcing its new policy, Rouhani noted that Iran would begin disengaging from its nuclear commitments under the deal for as long as the other parties to the agreement fail to provide it with what it desires: Access to the global financial system and the ability to export its oil. In short, after each new step, Tehran would grant the Europeans two months to come through. If Europe responds in a satisfactory manner, Iran would then reverse course and return to fully implementing the deal. If not, then the country would push through and continue to dial down its own compliance with the agreement in 60-day increments.

So far, Iran’s approach hasn’t succeeded. Indeed, it has brought further pressure on Tehran. The United States has imposed additional sanctions and the Europeans reportedly threatened to trigger the dispute-resolution mechanism if Iran’s nuclear escalation continues. But the strategy has allowed Iran to resume certain nuclear activities previously constrained under the JCPOA, while also signaling to Europe and the United States that pressure won’t be met with patience forever. Instead, Iran, too, has sticks and carrots at its disposal and seems willing to deploy them.

Iran has complemented its gradual nuclear escalation with more aggressive military measures in the region. In doing so, Iran is deliberately dragging U.S. European allies into the ongoing tensions, demonstrating to them that they can’t be passive observers to the new U.S. hard line policy on Iran; they are involved, like it or not. In particular, Iran has targeted European (and Japanese and Gulf Arab) oil tankers, and regional oil production. The message from Iran is simple: If Iran can’t sell its oil and gain access to their revenue, neither will America’s regional partners and European allies.

This course of action has proved popular within the Iranian system and provided Rouhani with a much-needed boost. It’s signaling that Tehran’s strategic patience for the JCPOA is finally running out.

Iran’s decision-making process on sensitive issues such as its nuclear program can be opaque and hard to dissect. But it’s clear that every step Iran has taken so far, from the initial period of “strategic patience” to the more aggressive posture of slowly rolling back its JCPOA commitments over the past six months, has been taken at the highest levels of the regime and with input from key power centers.

Immediately after Trump’s remarks starting the process of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and the subsequent re-imposition of sanctions (along with the implementation of the “maximum pressure” campaign), Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made important remarks about Iran’s next steps. He noted that his country would continue to implement the deal, but that it would also begin to prepare the groundwork for a possible collapse of the agreement. Later, Iran would come to characterize this phase as “strategic patience.” The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the entity in charge of running Iran’s nuclear program, was key to this phase. Per its mandate, the organization is responsible for meeting nuclear policy objectives and preparing for what’s next.

Khamenei’s framework set the basic parameters for the Supreme National Security Council to design the nuclear policy moving forward. The Supreme National Security Council is tasked with streamlining national security decision-making by bringing together all key power centers within the regime. The organization includes representatives from otherwise siloed organizations, including the supreme leader’s office, the executive branch, and the armed forces (chiefly, in the context of the nuclear file, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps). The Supreme National Security Council has coordinated with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to design and implement the steps taken since May 2019.

All in all, Iran is showing a great deal of discipline. Rather than burning the JCPOA, as Khamenei had vowed to do prior to the U.S. withdrawal, Iran is taking calculated and deliberate steps. The process is noteworthy and stands in stark contrast to the Washington’s approach, which lacks a coherent strategy. Since the abandonment of the nuclear deal, there is no obvious U.S. plan to mitigate the risks of containing Iran’s nuclear program. And that has translated into lost leverage, making it even more difficult to achieve already lofty American foreign policy goals.

Unwinding the JCPOA, 60 Days at a Time

In May — one year after the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal — Iran abandoned its “strategic patience” approach and began a process of incrementally rolling back its JCPOA commitments every 60 days. As of this month, Iran had breached the caps on its heavy water and low enriched uranium stockpiles, enriched to higher levels than allowed under the deal, abandoned restrictions on its centrifuge research and development activities, and, most recently, resumed enrichment at the underground Fordow facility, which it had committed to repurpose for non-enrichment activities. Iran’s approach to rolling back its nuclear commitments has been bold yet calibrated — designed to gradually build pressure on the United States and Europe by targeting key pillars of the agreement, rather than racing for a short-notice breakout capability.

Most of Iran’s moves have been intentionally headline-grabbing. Its decisions to grow its stockpile of enriched uranium, to increase its level of enrichment, and to resume enrichment at Fordow are provocative because they violate key parts of the agreement that are designed to keep Iran at a one-year breakout timeline. Iran’s resumption of enrichment at Fordow — which is more deeply buried than Iran’s other enrichment site at Natanz — is also problematic because the facility is harder to eliminate with a military strike.

At the same time, however, Iran’s accumulation of fissile material has been gradual, its increase in enrichment level marginal (it has increased from the JCPOA-mandated 3.67 percent to just under 5 percent — well short of the roughly 90 percent needed for a bomb), and it is only using some of its centrifuges to enrich at Fordow (the facility remains below its pre-JCPOA capacity). Thus, while these measures will slowly eat away at the breakdown timeline, Iran is nowhere near the two- to three-month timeline to a bomb’s worth of nuclear material that it was at prior to the deal.

The one outlier in Iran’s pattern is the expansion of its centrifuge research and development efforts. Iran announced in September that it would be adding cascades of more advanced IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuges — previously removed by the JCPOA — and that it would begin enriching IR-4s and IR-6s in greater numbers than the deal permits. It also unveiled what it claimed were brand new IR-8 and IR-9 centrifuges in November. Although less flashy than resuming enrichment at a deeply buried bunker, increasing its research — especially over an extended period — perhaps has the greatest technical impact because it allows Iran to gain knowledge about how its advanced centrifuges work, possibly improving them in the process. This could shorten the time window in which Iran could deploy these advanced centrifuges on a larger scale. Iran has highlighted the fact that all of its measures could be easily reversed. Still, while it can shut down and remove advanced centrifuges to JCPOA levels, it cannot erase the knowledge it has gained.

Iran’s coercive approach has largely been consistent since May. Tehran has tried to make the timing of its moves predictable: It has made clear that every 60 days it will further reduce its commitments, giving Europe and others a window to try and forestall further strain to the deal. Tehran’s demands have also been clear: The benefits of the deal that it lost when the United States withdrew and re-imposed sanctions need to be restored, either by Europe finding workarounds or by America re-entering the deal. Additionally, Iran has emphasized that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is fully aware of and monitoring its new activities. This is seemingly designed to help retain confidence that it is not doing more than it threatens, or that it is trying to build a bomb. Tehran probably believes that doing otherwise would provide the United States and Israel with the ammunition to build international support that could further isolate Tehran.

Some aspects of Iran’s approach, however, have changed since May — likely due to a sense that its strategy hasn’t yet succeeded coupled with internal debates within Tehran over how aggressive Iran should be in ratcheting up its program. For one, it has given fewer advance signals about exactly which commitments it will roll back, or when. For example, Iran announced in May it would breach its caps on enrichment but did not actually follow through until July. Iran delayed the first step by 60 days to provide the Europeans with enough time to react to its announcement. In contrast, the Iranian government did not provide any serious public warnings about resuming enrichment at Fordow before announcing that it was doing so. In fact, just days before Rouhani’s remarks on Fordow, Iran had announced new research and development measures, which many (both inside and outside Iran) had assumed would constitute its fourth step.

As it stands, Iran has avoided limiting the IAEA’s access to its nuclear program, recognizing that blinding the international community to its activities could raise alarms that it is building a bomb. The detainment of an IAEA inspector last month raises the question of whether Iran might go down this path. It also raises the question of whether Iran — in addition to its clear, well-publicized actions to eliminate its commitments at certain intervals — might pursue a more subtle campaign of harassment of inspectors.

Greater unpredictability about what actions Iran might take and steps to impede IAEA access would be more provocative, and increases the chances of miscalculation.

Where Do We Go from Here?

It’s unclear how far Iranian leaders are willing to go on the nuclear issue. There are reasons for analysts to be humble: Few would have guessed that in September Iran would dare carry out a reported cruise missile strike directly into Saudi territory, just as most analysts hadn’t foreseen the escalatory actions taken by Iran in the Persian Gulf in spring and summer 2019.

Some may think that the specter of EU sanctions or a UN sanctions snapback might cause Iran to cease its escalatory behavior. But this confidence is probably misplaced. While Iran might not be actively seeking to collapse the deal and trigger sanctions, it is certainly more than willing to run that risk, as evidenced by its continued violations of the deal.

And Iran has warned that if sanctions are re-imposed it will not sit idly by. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi recently stated at a Moscow conference that if Iran’s reward for years of negotiations and cooperation are to have UN sanctions re-imposed, then it will be forced to move from tactical steps to a broader strategic re-examination of its nuclear doctrine.

If Iran maintains its 60-day clock, it will have six more opportunities to reduce its commitments between now and the 2020 U.S. presidential election. What might it be willing to do? While there is a wide range of possible actions, there are four broad categories of activities worth worrying about.

Actions that shorten Iran’s breakout timeline. Iran has threatened multiple times that it could resume enrichment to 20 percent — a significant step that would more quickly shorten its breakout timeline. If the United States ends sanctions waivers that allow for Iran to import 20 percent enriched fuel as some have advocated, this could give Iran a degree of political cover for resuming enrichment to this level (cover it has used in the past). Iran could also increase centrifuge production, add additional centrifuges at Natanz, deploy advanced centrifuges in greater numbers, or expand enrichment efforts at Fordow.

Actions that reduce the international community’s insights into Iran’s nuclear program. Iran could also choose to reduce the IAEA’s access. Ending its provisional application of the Additional Protocol would be a provocative step, and would curtail the IAEA’s ability to detect undeclared activities. But Iran has other, more targeted mechanisms at its disposal. These include curbing the IAEA’s ability to monitor Iran’s centrifuge production and manufacturing equipment, or preventing inspectors from accessing yellowcake production activities. These and other measures could make it harder for the IAEA to detect diversion of this equipment or material for covert efforts — which is ultimately more worrying than the unlikely Iranian “breakout” using its declared facilities — and could make it more difficult to establish a new baseline of such activities if the JCPOA were saved or a new deal reached.

Actions that bear on other pathways to a nuclear weapon. Iran could make announcements that bear on other routes to a bomb or steps in nuclear weapons production — though it would likely not acknowledge this fact. For example, Tehran could choose to announce that it will no longer abide by restrictions on reprocessing activities or prohibitions on efforts related to weaponization. While these would pose no immediate risk of nuclear weapons development (Iran has no reprocessing capability, and can’t produce a weapon without fissile material), they would be provocative moves because their close association with nuclear weapons would raise concerns about a change to Iran’s intent. Abandoning restrictions on weaponization-related activities — most of which are contained in Section T of the deal — would be particularly alarming. Because most of them would not necessarily require nuclear material, Iran would probably maintain that the IAEA has no right to verify the presence or absence of these activities under the deal.

The nuclear option. Finally, some voices within Iran are reportedly advocating for Iran to withdraw from the JCPOA and officials have threatened to even leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) if UN sanctions are re-imposed. However, these steps are less likely than those outlined above. Unilaterally withdrawing from the JCPOA would force Iran to yield the diplomatic high ground — if the deal blows up, Iran probably calculates it’s better to force the Europeans to do it. Letting the JCPOA hang on by a thread also allows Iran to still benefit from the expiration of the UN arms embargo in October 2020 and gauge whether it is likely to face Trump or a Democratic administration — many candidates have pledged to return to the JCPOA — in 2021. A withdrawal from the NPT is even riskier and, therefore, extremely unlikely any time soon. Leaving the NPT would spark fears Iran was building a bomb, and therefore risk new levels of international pressure against Iran (including the potential for military strikes) without Iran having a nuclear deterrent at the ready.


Iran has kept its next steps quiet. But if the actions it’s taken so far on the nuclear program are any indication, the United States and the remaining parties to the JCPOA must brace themselves for what may be a significantly more challenging year ahead with additional escalatory measures. By withdrawing from the agreement and already firing its most potent rounds (i.e., oil and banking sanctions), the United States is limited in its ability to deter further Iranian nuclear advances. Iran, on the other hand, still has more chips it can play.



Eric Brewer is deputy director and fellow at the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Ariane Tabatabai is an associate political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University.

Image: President of Iran