Geopolitics

As Hopes For Iran Nuclear Deal Fade, Uranium Enrichment Accelerates

Institute for Science and International Security concludes that Iran is enriching uranium at a 60% level, with new centrifuges meaning that Tehran is a month away from obtaining arms-grade material to move toward its first weapon.

Photo of Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi walking on a stage in front of Iranian flags

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, elected in August 2021

Ahmad Ra'fat

-Analysis-

The U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security, which includes independent nuclear power experts, concludes from information issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is enriching uranium at a 60% level — and thanks to new types of centrifuges, Tehran is barely a month away from obtaining weapons-grade material. The specialists caution that weapons-grade uranium is not the same as a nuclear bomb, for which delivery weapons and assemblage are needed. That would require another two years.

The Institute's experts believe Iran could produce material for a second bomb within a three-month time frame and that unless its activities are slowed, it may have enough enriched uranium for three bombs in the next five months.


Yet European states have shown unjustified optimism after a recent trip to Tehran by IAEA chief Rafael Grossi, and his meeting with Mohammad Eslami, the new head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization. Grossi achieved very little in terms of reducing Iran's enrichment activities, merely ensuring the IAEA's renewed access to its cameras in installations there. Their recordings remain in Iranian hands.

Sabotage and cyberattacks haven't stopped progress

Instead, the visit helped Iran to halt at the last minute a threat by Britain, France and Germany to present the IAEA board of governors with a draft resolution to resend Iran's dossier to the UN Security Council for violating its non-proliferation obligations.

The IAEA had made further concessions. In past months, it kept quiet about reports of abusive conduct in Iran toward female IAEA inspectors, protesting only once the incidents were reported in The Wall Street Journal.

The Institute for Science and International Security also believes the acts of sabotage and cyberattacks of past months reportedly carried out by Israel and the United States, have failed to significantly interrupt Iran's program, merely slowing activities at certain locations. Tehran managed to rapidly repair the damage done, and resume its activities. The report concludes that Iran is as close today as it has ever been to accessing a bomb.

File photo of former Iranian President Rouhani and Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi visit an exhibition of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) achievements.— Photo: Salampix/Abaca/ZUMA

Keep an eye on Ali Baqeri-Kani

It is not currently clear when Iran and the West will resume talks on Tehran's program. With the rise of hardline officials in Iran — from President Ibrahim Raisi to his foreign minister, Hossein Amir'abdollahian and the country's new nuclear chief, Mohammad Eslami — it seems unlikely the West will get the same terms as the 2015 pact that included the United States.

Western states are particularly concerned by Iran's new negotiator, Ali Baqeri-Kani, who replaces Abbas Araqchi. Baqeri's father heads some of the regime's powerful financial and cultural foundations and his brother, Mesbahulhuda, is a son-in-law to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He has several times voiced his opposition to any type of compromise with the West.

From 2007 to 2013, he was in the negotiation team led by Sa'id Jalili, when talks with the West yielded nothing for Iran but more and tougher sanctions. Today, the prospects of reviving the 2015 pact have dimmed. Its moribund state may even have cheered Israel into recently softening its vociferous opposition to a pact with Tehran.

Observers suspect more concessions to Iran may be afoot, to prevent the pact's demise. Some believe the Islamic Republic may be changing its entire nuclear policy, and its refusal to return to Vienna has little to do with a new president but with a firm belief that it must return with its "hands full." Dangling its considerable advances toward a nuclear weapon, Iran could then stop its activities at the last minute, in return for major concessions, like the lifting of most sanctions and foregoing any talks about its ballistic program or regional interventions.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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