Iran’s highest-ever uranium enrichment level is ‘no mistake,’ warns Israeli researcher

The IAEA found uranium at 84% purity, a short step from nuclear weapons, Bloomberg reported.

Centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in Iran. Source: Twitter.
Centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in Iran. Source: Twitter.

Observers in Israel are closely watching developments regarding Iran’s nuclear program following Sunday’s report that U.N. monitors discovered uranium enriched to just below weapons grade.

According to the Bloomberg report, the IAEA is seeking to determine how Iran obtained uranium enriched to 84% purity—the highest level discovered by inspectors in the country to date. The concentration is only 6 percentage points below military-grade uranium, a prerequisite for building nuclear bombs.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Tamir Hayman, former head of IDF Military Intelligence and director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, tweeted on Monday that the unusual enrichment level is “a wakeup call,” adding that there are two possible explanations.

The first could be “a mistake that stems from the games the Iranians have recently been playing in connecting the cascades. The whole attempt to deal with valves and gas could lead to an error,” said Hayman.

“The second possibility is that a decision was taken to enrich to the threshold of military enrichment in order to test the response of the West,” he continued. “Another step in the Iranian goal of getting us used to a severe situation, as we got used to the 60% situation.”

Roy Cahanovitz, an Iran researcher at Ariel University’s Middle East and Central Asia Research Center and a research associate at the Alma Center, told JNS, “The regime in Iran does not make ‘mistakes’ in all that is tied to its nuclear program. This is a state led by a regime that knows very well the history and the attack capability of Israel.”

“There is a reason why Iran’s nuclear facilities have been spread out and planted deep underground,” said Cahanovitz. “The State of Israel and the Western world are struggling to find an effective strategy since Iran is a highly sophisticated state, which says X but does Y, in line with the tradition of the Grand Bazaar in Tehran.”

According to Hayman, ignoring the new discovery will raise the confidence of the Iranians and push them to enrich to 90% purity. 

“If we decide not to ignore it, the question arises, how will we respond?… We lack an effective strategy against the Iranian nuclear program. The situation is growing more severe, and we are like, in the allegory, the frog that is getting used to the growing heat until it is too late,” the former intelligence chief warned. “This report is an opportunity for a wakeup call—a continuation of the current trend will lead us to a reality of a nuclear agreement.”

Last week, Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, an ex-Military Intelligence Research Division head and former director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, told JNS that the “trip wire” for action appears to have been moved by both Israel and the United States, each in its own way, and they appear to have settled on the idea of needing to act “one minute before Iran starts enriching uranium to the military-grade, 90%.”

Responding to the Bloomberg report, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday that he is in close contact with the IAEA and European governments over the development, adding that he’d say more on the matter after receiving further information.

On Jan. 26, a historic five-day joint Israeli-American military exercise called Juniper Oak came to an end. The exercise saw unprecedented levels of cooperation between the U.S. military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for the Middle East, and the IDF.

Juniper Oak tested Israeli and American readiness and boosted the operational connection between the two militaries so as to enable them to deal with “regional threats,” according to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, but the intended target audience for this message seems to have been Iran.

Some 6,500 U.S. commanders and soldiers took part, as did missile ships and fighter jets from both militaries, which fired on simulated naval threats. The two air forces also practiced a range of scenarios, including the use of transport and mid-air refueling aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, search and rescue helicopters and B-52 bombers, which dropped munitions on targets in southern Israel. Fighter jets and bombers were refueled by Israeli and American refuelers, including the American Boeing KC-46 Pegasus, which will be in the IAF’s inventory in the coming years.

Out at sea, meanwhile, the Israel Navy’s Sa’ar 5 missile ships were refueled by an American tanker.

An initial review of the exercise was held by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi and CENTCOM commander Gen. Michael E. Kurilla aboard the George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea. Members of the IDF General Staff and the U.S. Sixth Fleet also participated.

Juniper Oak was, according to Kuperwasser, “designed to send a message to Iran: You are the target. The entire concept is about discouraging them from reaching 90% enrichment. The Iranians need to take it seriously. They could tell themselves that those who want to deter don’t do it as loudly. On the other hand, they cannot ignore this message.”

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