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‘A dangerous game of chicken’: Iran sets up challenge for Biden with nuclear ramp-up

  • Within the first week of 2021, Iran seized a South Korean tanker in the Strait of Hormuz and announced its return to 20% uranium enrichment, a massive breach of the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with world powers.
  • A recent law passed by Iran's hawkish Parliament — over the objections of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's government — mandates that Iran ramp up its nuclear program on multiple fronts. 
  • The moves create an immediate challenge for the incoming Biden administration

 

President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani speaks during the National Combat Board Meeting with Coronavirus (Covid-19) in Tehran, Iran on Nov. 21, 2020.Iranian Presidency Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Iran came into 2021 swinging.

Within the first week of the year, the country had seized a South Korean tanker in the Strait of Hormuz and announced its return to 20% uranium enrichment, a massive breach of the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with world powers.

The tanker seizure, Iran says, is in response to South Korea holding $7 billion of its cash, frozen as a result of U.S. sanctions the Trump administration imposed on Iran after pulling out of the deal in 2018. South Korea's foreign minister arrived in Tehran on Sunday to discuss the tanker's release.

The moves are sure to create a headache for the incoming Biden administration, whose top officials never wanted the nuclear deal — officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — to be abandoned in the first place. 

What does 20% enrichment mean?

Just how important is that 20% nuclear enrichment figure? For starters, 20% constitutes highly-enriched uranium and was the level at which Iran was enriching uranium between 2010 and 2013, before the JCPOA was agreed. Its activities led Iran to be hit with the toughest sanctions ever coordinated by the U.S. and EU together. 

Under the nuclear deal, by contrast, Iran was only allowed to enrich to 3.67% U-235. U-235 is the isotope of uranium that can sustain a fission chain reaction. 

"Iran appears to be trying to maximize its leverage with the Biden administration in the hope that the U.S. will agree to re-enter, rather than attempt to renegotiate, the JCPOA," Anne Harrington, professor of international relations and a specialist in nuclear non-proliferation at Cardiff University in Wales, told CNBC.

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