Iran Sends a Threat, and Europe Scrambles

Some diplomats and experts worry the nuclear deal is on the verge of unraveling.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A portrait of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with shoe marks over it during a demonstration in support of the Iranian people amid a wave of protests spreading throughout Iran in Paris on Jan. 3, 2018.
A portrait of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with shoe marks over it during a demonstration in support of the Iranian people amid a wave of protests spreading throughout Iran in Paris on Jan. 3, 2018. LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

A year after the Trump administration walked away from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed punishing economic sanctions, Tehran’s patience and willingness to keep up its end of the bargain may be finally running out. Iran said Wednesday that it would stop complying with a pair of key provisions of the nuclear accord, setting up a showdown with Washington and the European countries that so far have been willing to toss Tehran a lifeline.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would stop shipping to other countries the enriched uranium and heavy water—two building blocks of a nuclear weapons program—that it still produced, breaking with a pair of promises it made in the 2015 accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Some analysts suggested Tehran’s implicit message was at once a plea and a threat to the European and Chinese parties to the nuclear deal: Help us, or we’ll go rogue. “Iran is shifting from strategic patience to strategic action,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, a scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

The initial move was less drastic than many observers feared and didn’t include any immediate steps to churn out more highly enriched uranium that could be the forerunner of a bomb. Still, Iran’s shot across the bow could portend the end of the deal if Europe doesn’t scramble to help save it.

“It could have been much worse. Iran has taken minimum retaliatory measures against U.S. maximum pressure,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director at the International Crisis Group, a think tank. “The ball is now in the court of the deal’s remaining signatories to choose between challenging U.S. unilateral sanctions [and] witnessing additional Iranian violations leading to eventual unraveling of the deal.”

Ominously, Rouhani said that if economic relief doesn’t arrive in the next two months, Iran will forswear other limits on its ability to further enrich or stockpile enriched uranium, potentially making it easier for the regime to quickly build a nuclear weapon.

“This is the beginning of the end of the JCPOA, I think,” said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “The real problem is that we are now back to the races with a 60-day Iranian clock and doubtless U.S. retaliation with more sanctions to come. So the threat is more from the inevitable escalation than what happened today.”

Others are more hopeful. “The Iranians made this gesture because they’re not prepared to fully breach the deal, yet they’re still looking for some other way out,” said Suzanne Maloney, an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

The two big questions now are how the United States responds and whether Europe can make good on a year of promises to deliver at least some of the economic benefits Iran was promised under the nuclear deal.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt condemned Iran’s move during a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited London on Wednesday. “Should Iran cease to observe its nuclear commitments, there would, of course, be consequences. For as long as Iran keeps its commitments, then so too will the United Kingdom,” Hunt said.

Pompeo said the United States would hold off on a response to see if Iran actually followed through with the threat. “We’ll have to wait to see what Iran’s actions actually are. They’ve made a number of statements about actions they threatened to do in order to get the world to jump. We’ll see what they actually do. The United States will wait to observe that,” he said at the joint press conference.

But on Wednesday, the White House announced it would impose new sanctions on Iran’s iron, steel, aluminum, and copper sectors, starving the country of even more sorely needed export revenue and further ratcheting up political pressure on the regime.

For Europe, Iran’s move presents a dilemma. So far, European efforts to sidestep U.S. sanctions with the creation of a special financial vehicle have done next to nothing to prop up Iranian oil exports or bolster its cratering economy, giving Tehran few economic reasons to keep complying with the agreement.

“I don’t think it’s possible for the Europeans to deliver what the Iranians expected. They can’t force companies to do business with Iran, and they can’t force banks to do transactions with Iran,” Maloney said.

Over the weekend, after the U.S. decision to clamp down on all Iranian oil exports and close some nuclear technology loopholes, the European Union, France, Germany, and Britain vowed to keep working to deliver some of the accord’s promised economic benefits for Iran. “We are determined to pursue efforts, together with other European partners, to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran,” the group said.

Europeans will likely grin and bear Iran’s latest announcement, said ECFR’s Geranmayeh. Iran, under the terms of the JCPOA, has the right to cease compliance “in whole or in part” if sanctions are reimposed, and the United States also withdrew critical waivers last week that allowed Iran to sell to other countries the excess uranium and heavy water it produced, all but forcing today’s decision.

European diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, insist the deal isn’t doomed, and they are exploring ways to continue working with Tehran, including on the special financial vehicle, Iranian oil revenues, and humanitarian aid shipments to Iran.

But the Iranian demand for economic benefits in the next two months is also directed at China, which is a party to the nuclear accord and has been a big buyer of Iranian oil in recent years. Geranmayeh said Tehran is trying to convince Beijing to buck U.S. sanctions pressure and keep buying Iranian oil to keep its economy afloat but that China, currently in the middle of a contentious trade war with the United States, has less room to thumb its nose at Washington than it did in the past. With neither Europe nor China fully delivering, it’s hard to see how Iran can derive the economic benefits from the accord that Rouhani has repeatedly promised.

Experts are most concerned by what Iran could do if no help arrives by summer. Jettisoning limits on the amount of uranium it can stockpile—and, importantly, how much it can enrich that uranium—would set Tehran back on the path to developing a viable nuclear weapon. That would likely be a deal-breaker for European countries that have tried to balance preserving the deal and maintaining good relations with Washington.

“If Iran does resume construction on [nuclear] facilities and formally breach the deal, don’t expect Europe to play nice and let that happen, especially the French,” said Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury Department official who worked on U.S. sanctions and is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank. “The EU will have to walk a thin line of not appearing to follow the United States but also not giving in to Iran’s nuclear blackmail.”

Iran’s move comes amid a flare-up of tensions with the United States in recent days, after the Trump administration said it had indications that Iran was preparing to retaliate against U.S. interests in the region, including possibly against U.S. troops in Iraq.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton on Sunday characterized a preplanned deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the region as a signal to Iran that any actions would be “met with unrelenting force,” and Pompeo interrupted his tour of Europe to make an unscheduled trip to Iraq on Tuesday, where he pledged to defend the country’s sovereignty from Iranian interference.

“Look, we’ve withdrawn from the agreement. The Iranians will have to make their own choice about how they want to proceed,” Pompeo told reporters. “I think everyone will look at the Iranians’ decision and have to make their own assessment of how much increased risk there is.”

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer