Tehran taunts US with Fordow; pokes at Trump with Agent Levinson

Satellite imagery of Iran’s underground Fordow uranium enrichment facility north of the city of Qom

Tehran announced on November 7 that it has begun refining uranium at Fordow, a secretive site built inside a mountain to the north of the holy city of Qom, apparently to protect it from any aerial bombardment, and one that Tehran concealed from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors until 2009. 

The future of the active nuclear site at Fordow was at the epicentre of the negotiations leading to the 2015 nuclear deal and the feedstock gas entering its centrifuges becomes a poignant moment. 

The foreign ministers of the E3 (Britain, France and Germany) and the EU who were signatories of the Iran nuclear deal met in Brussels on November 11 and discussed the development. They issued a joint statement saying the resumption of uranium enrichment activities at the Fordow facility “has potentially severe proliferation implications.” 

The statement demanded that “Iran must return to full implementation of its commitments under the JCPOA without delay.” Importantly, it warned Tehran of the E3’s “readiness to consider all mechanisms in the JCPOA, including the dispute resolution mechanism, to resolve the issues related to Iran’s implementation of its JCPOA commitments. We are in contact with the other JCPOA participants (read Russia and China) in this regard.” 

Russia and China are unlikely to coordinate with the E3. On November 9 in a TV interview, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova tore into E3 and squarely blamed the West for the emergent situation. On November 10, Tehran and Moscow also began pouring concrete for a second reactor at Iran’s sole nuclear power plant in Bushehr on the Gulf coast.

Iran will not be cowed down by the E3 / EU statement. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif scoffed at the statement. To be sure, Tehran will make further moves to distance itself from the JCPOA at every 60-day intervals. 

On November 11, Iran’s envoy to the United Nations Ali Nasimfar repeated the warning at a UN General Assembly session in New York devoted to cooperation with the IAEA: 

“Iran alone can not, shall not and will not take all of the burdens anymore to preserve the JCPOA. Consequently, to bring a balance to the JCPOA, Iran decided to limit the implementation of its commitment in full conformity with the JCPOA’s Paragraph 26 and 36. These are the minimal measures that Iran could adopt a year after the US withdrew from the JCPOA. If timely adequate, serious and practical measures are not taken by other the JCPOA participants, Iran will be forced to exercise its right under the JCPOA Paragraphs 26 and 36 to further limit the implementation of its commitment every 60 days.” 

So far, E3 and EU have got away with saying nice things about Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, while going through the motions of creating a ‘mechanism’ that would enable Tehran to trade with European countries. But with Fordow being reactivated, crunch time has come.  

On the other hand, while professing interest in engaging Iran in negotiations, the Trump administration has only intensified the ‘maximum pressure’ approach by imposing more sanctions. But Tehran has been steadfast in its stance that it will only negotiate if the sanctions are lifted. 

As time passes, this stalemate can reach a flashpoint, depending on Iran’s next moves at 60-day intervals. The E3 seem to fear that at some point, Tehran may begin to distance itself from the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol, which forms part of the JCPOA and is the most stringent that IAEA ever imposed on a member country. 

Meanwhile, IAEA itself is in transition. The former IAEA chief Yukiya Amano died in July under mysterious circumstances. Tehran suspects that Amano was assassinated by Israeli agents with Washington’s connivance for being too neutral / impartial toward Iran. 

At any rate, Amano’s successor, Argentinian diplomat Rafael Grossi, is Washington’s choice. The US energy secretary has called him the “perfect candidate.” Iran is unlikely to find a fair-minded interlocutor in Grossi (which is why the Trump administration supported his bid.) 

If Grossi begins acting as the agent of Israeli spy agencies — Israel is pushing for additional investigations of the Iranian nuclear program — it will put Tehran’s back up, and sparks will fly. Curiously, the E3 / EU statement yesterday touched on “the lack of timely cooperation by Iran” with the IAEA. 

However, the good part in the past week’s developments is that the E3 / EU statement underscores the urgency of some sort of mediation between Washington and Tehran to break the impasse. The French President Emmanuel Macron seems to be positioning himself accordingly to resume his mediatory mission. 

On November 6, Macron said at a news conference in Beijing, “I will have discussions in the coming days, including with the Iranians, and we must collectively draw the consequences.” Macron added that the next few weeks will be dedicated to increasing pressure on Iran to return within the framework of the pact, while this must be “accompanied by an easing of some sanctions.”

He emphasised that “A return to normal can only take place if the United States and Iran agree to reopen a sort of trust agenda” and dialogue.  Macron said he would discuss the issue with US President Donald Trump. 

In the meantime, it appears to be more than a coincidence that Tehran acknowledged last week for the first time in a filing to the UN that it has an open case before its Revolutionary Court over the 2007 disappearance of a former FBI agent on an unauthorised CIA mission to the country. 

The timing of the disclosure — amid heightened tensions over Tehran’s standoff with the US — is rather curious. Interestingly, Trump lost no time to react, tweeting on November 11: “If Iran is able to turn over to the U.S. kidnapped former FBI Agent Robert A. Levinson, who has been missing in Iran for 12 years, it would be a very positive step.” 

In the saga of US-Iran hostility, hostages and tradeoffs have played a seminal role in the opening of channels of communication. How this one plays out remains to be seen. It seems that having provoked Trump by flaunting Fordow, Tehran is baiting him with Agent Levinson. The situation is fraught with possibilities.