KEY POINTS

  • Iran aims to enrich uranium to 20%, well beyond the level outlined in the JCPOA
  • Biden’s first goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon
  • Iran is tentatively scheduled to hold presidential elections in June

Iran and the U.S. could be on a collision course over the former's nuclear ambitions, leaving President-elect Joe Biden with delicate work to do during his first days in office.

Conservative leaders in the Iranian parliament are calling to enrich uranium to 20%, far greater than the permissible level outlined in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the U.N.-backed nuclear agreement abandoned by President Donald Trump in 2018.

Anne Harrington, a specialist in nuclear proliferation issues at Cardiff University in Wales, told CNBC on Tuesday that Iran’s intentions are meant to pressure the incoming Biden administration into rejoining the JCPOA rather than renegotiating its terms.

“The fact that the more hawkish Iranian parliament is able to push through a law mandating that Iran expand its nuclear program on multiple fronts is worrying,” she said. “At its worst, this strategy could exacerbate tensions and result in a dangerous game of chicken.”

Iranian presidential elections are tentatively scheduled for June. That gives Biden only a few short months to work with outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is viewed as generally less hostile to the West relative to the more conservative members of parliament.

By entering the JCPOA in 2016, Iran agreed to step back its uranium enrichment program from 20% to around 3.7%. Weapons-grade enrichment is closer to 90%, though anything above 4% is considered a breakthrough level toward developing a nuclear bomb.

In an op-ed published by CNN in November, Biden said his first priority as president would be to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

“If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” he wrote.

On Tuesday, Ali Rabiei, a spokesperson for Rouhani, said renegotiating the agreement “is out of the question,” Iranian broadcaster Press TV reported.

Early opposition to the agreement came from Republicans, who argued during the negotiation period that it left Iran free to enrich small amounts of uranium and was lax on the inspection of Iranian military sites.

Trump spent much of his tenure advancing a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, seeking to force Tehran’s hand by enacting sanctions against the Islamic republic at a dizzying pace. U.S. military forces assassinated a top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, while he was visiting Iraq in early 2020.

Iran, for its part, has tried to show resilience while at the same time threatening shipping lanes in the busy Strait of Hormuz. Last week, Iran's president used his official website to call Trump an “unhealthy person" one day after protestors stormed the Capitol building in Washington D.C.

Sanam Vakil, the deputy head of the Middle East program at London think tank Chatham House, told CNBC the different policies over reentering or renegotiation put both sides between a rock and a hard place.

For Iran, it wants to avoid returning to the agreement too quickly. For Biden, “the optics are quite difficult to justify giving in to the Islamic Republic and giving in to pressure tactics, particularly in light of the past criticism of the deal,” he said.

A handout photo issued on January 5, 2021 by the Iranian army shows drones on display prior to a military drill A handout photo issued on January 5, 2021 by the Iranian army shows drones on display prior to a military drill Photo: Iranian Army office / -