The move comes days after Iran said it had broken another promise by stockpiling more than its agreed limit of uranium.
University of Toronto nuclear proliferation expert Pekka Sinervo says that the element, which is enriched by stripping away natural uranium from its radioactive counterpart, has to be at a level above 90 per cent for it to be used in weapons. Currently, Iran is reported to have raised its level from 3.67 per cent to 4.5 per cent.
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Sinervo says that he sees this as more of a political ground move to lift those U.S. sanctions rather than a race towards nuclear armament. Here are a few scenarios experts say they see playing out:
Iran backs down, with assurances and compromises from the U.S. and other actors
Iran would continue to enrich its uranium for some time while mounting pressure would build on both sides.
Previously, Iran was three months away from enriching enough uranium before it had attained nuclear weapon capabilities and would most likely come close to that amount again before the U.S. would make a move.
“Best case is that President Trump finds a way through back-channel negotiations where there are some cosmetic changes to the agreement they reached earlier and pronounces it a great victory,” said Janice Stein, the founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs.
“We’ve seen him do this several times like the USMCA agreement, marginal changes and he claimed to have a great victory because NAFTA was also ‘the worst deal ever.’”
Succumbing to the pressure, the U.S. and Iran would temporarily resolve the dispute, eventually leading both countries back to square one. According to both Sinervo and Stein, this would be the best outcome given the current situation.
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Iran continues to increase its nuclear enrichment with no agreements on either side
No sides would agree to negotiations or back-channel agreements.
Iran would continue to enrich and build up its stockpile of uranium, eventually coming close to or attaining its own nuclear weapons.
Sinervo says this is would be a very dangerous situation. “In terms of weapons and at least in the relatively short-term we have had nuclear weapons, no country has actually given them up once they’ve actually had them in hand.”
Mounting pressure between Israel, Iran and the United States would most likely lead to open conflict.
According to Sinervo, Israel’s previous history of destroying foreign nuclear operations — first in Iraq and later on in Syria — means that this should be considered as a realistic possibility.
“If this continues you know I’ve already mentioned the possibility of Israel taking matters into its own hands and unilaterally working with Trump, working to disable Iran’s nuclear facilities.”
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According to Stein, this would be the most dangerous scenario, one with an outcome that could have catastrophic consequences.
“The worst case scenario, neither of them blink, then there is one accidental incident in the Gulf and this escalates to a shooting war. We were close to that a month ago when President Trump pulled back at the very last minute,” Stein said.
“Nobody will be winning, not Iran, not the United States not all the vulnerable governments in the Middle East who would be the targets.”
Iran backs down without a compromise
Iran succumbs to the pressure and ceases the enrichment and stockpiling of their uranium, leading to a temporary de-escalation.
The U.S. sanctions would still be kept in place and Iran continues to support militia groups like Hezbollah in its proxy conflict with Israel.
According to Sinervo, this is the most unlikely scenario.
“That’s what I think seen by most of the political scientists and analysts who cover the region as very, very unlikely,” says Sinervo. “There is no history of that sort of behaviour.”
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Stein says that despite how the crisis plays out, the status quo of having its economy choked by the U.S. is unsustainable from Iran’s perspective.
“That’s why this is so dangerous because it’s unpredictable. This is playing chicken on a global level, that’s what they’re both doing now.”
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— With files from The Associated Press