Is Iran Abandoning the 2015 Nuclear Agreement?

Not quite. But by saying it’s no longer bound by any nuclear restrictions, Tehran has come one big step closer to scrapping the deal.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, pictured here on Nov. 10, 2019, threw down the gauntlet Sunday with the latest breach of Iran’s commitments under the 2015 nuclear pact. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, just days after the United States killed a top Iranian military commander in an airstrike in Baghdad, Iran announced that it would no longer abide by any restrictions on its nuclear program. Those limits were the centerpiece of the 2015 nuclear agreement that had checked Tehran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon before the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the multiparty accord in 2018.

On Sunday, just days after the United States killed a top Iranian military commander in an airstrike in Baghdad, Iran announced that it would no longer abide by any restrictions on its nuclear program. Those limits were the centerpiece of the 2015 nuclear agreement that had checked Tehran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon before the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the multiparty accord in 2018.

The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said that from now on, “Iran’s nuclear program no longer faces any operating restrictions,” including how many kilograms of uranium it can enrich and how much it can enrich it. (Low-enriched uranium is suitable for powering nuclear reactors; highly enriched uranium is needed to make a bomb.)

The fifth in an escalating series of breaches of Iran’s nuclear obligations under the 2015 accord, the latest step has sparked speculation that the nuclear pact, which has staggered along on life support for a year and a half, is now for all intents and purposes dead—with all that entails for the risk of a renewed nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

 Does Iran’s latest announcement mean that it, too, is giving up on the nuclear deal?

Not quite. Iran simply continued the incremental breaches with limits on its nuclear program that it has been pursuing since May of last year. And Tehran was clear that it will continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which oversees Iran’s nuclear program and provides regular reports on its compliance with the accord. And Iran stressed that if the other signatories of the 2015 deal, especially European countries such as Britain, France, and Germany, can start to deliver some of the deal’s promised economic benefits—and if the Trump administration unwinds the economic sanctions it levied on Iran beginning in May 2019—Iran’s latest escalatory steps will be walked back.

“If the sanctions are lifted and Iran benefits from its interests, the Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to return to its obligations,” Iran’s nuclear agency said in its announcement.

Ultimately, given Iran’s periodic notification of incremental violations of an agreement that other parties are not honoring, the latest announcement is just one step closer to the unraveling of the nuclear agreement, but not yet the final one. (And it was not a direct response to the U.S. assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani on Friday; Iran’s nuclear breaches were telegraphed well in advance.)

“Sunday’s steps were serious, but expected, action by Iran. It is concerning, but it does not mean the death of the JCPOA,” said Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, referring to the deal by its formal title, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

 Iran has already breached several elements of the nuclear deal in recent months. What’s new in the latest announcement?

The biggest new development is that Iran is throwing off any limits on the number of centrifuges that it can operate; under the terms of the 2015 agreement, it was limited to a little over 5,000 first-generation centrifuges, which constrained its ability to enrich uranium to the levels needed to build a bomb. Now, Iran can install more of the older and less-efficient centrifuges (it has plenty) as well as arrays of more advanced, and more efficient, centrifuges that can enrich more uranium more quickly.

That’s important because the quicker Iran can enrich uranium, the quicker it can build a big stockpile of the stuff and proceed to further enrich it. In other words, more and more advanced centrifuges mean a shorter breakout time for Iran to get the bomb.

Previously, Iran had eschewed limits on the amount of low-enriched uranium it could stockpile, how much it could enrich that uranium, its ability to develop and deploy more advanced centrifuges, and its ability to carry out enrichment work at the heavily bunkered Fordow nuclear site. The latest step creates the potential—if not yet the reality—of a more robust enrichment program that would be necessary to turn a ton or so of low-enriched uranium into about 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, the minimum needed for an atomic weapon.

“Announcing an end to adherence limits isn’t the same as restarting prohibited activities,” Davenport said.

 Is there anything encouraging in Iran’s latest announcement?

Despite the further apparent nuclear escalation, things could have been worse. For starters, Iran didn’t say it would begin enriching uranium from current levels of about 4.5 percent to 20 percent—which is the next, and most important, step toward making weapons-grade uranium.

Iran also insisted that it would continue to offer the same level of cooperation with the IAEA, which is crucial to international oversight of the entire program. “Cooperation with the IAEA is critical—it sends the message that Iran is not dashing toward a bomb,” Davenport said.

And, despite repeated Iranian threats to go back to the original design for the Arak nuclear reactor, the latest announcement said nothing about plans to do so. That is good news from a proliferation point of view, because as long as Iran continues work to modify that reactor to make medical isotopes, it would not be suitable for the production of plutonium—another, and potentially an easier, path to a bomb. (Iran previously breached limits on the amount of heavy water it can store, which is important if it wants to operate that reactor as a breeder for plutonium.)

“The plutonium route is a lot easier—they would only need about eight to 12 kilograms,” said Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. “If Iran had its reactor up and running [on the original design], they could do that in as little as 200 days,” he said.

 So is Iran trying to race for a bomb or pressure Europe for economic relief?

While the full implications of Iran’s latest announcement remain unclear, the likeliest explanation is that Tehran is trying to ramp up pressure on key European countries to deliver some of the economic benefits that Iran was promised under the 2015 deal but that—due to U.S. sanctions—never arrived.

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, spoke with Iran’s top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, over the weekend, and he stressed that the EU hopes to keep the nuclear deal alive. He invited Zarif to Brussels to discuss ways to preserve what he called “a corner stone of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture and instrumental for the security of the region and the world.”

The problem is that Europe has tried for years to increase trade with Iran to help offset the economic impact of U.S. sanctions, but with very little success. Efforts to build a trading system that could insulate European firms from U.S. sanctions for certain transactions with Iran have gone basically nowhere. And there’s little chance European governments can convince European refiners to buy more Iranian oil—which would be manna for Iran—if it means risking the wrath of the U.S. Treasury.

One long shot might be to revive a recent French proposal to offer a multibillion-dollar line of credit to Iran in exchange for Tehran coming back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, but that requires Washington’s complaisance.

“There is still space to bring Iran back into compliance with the deal and avert a nuclear crisis, but that window is rapidly closing and will continue to narrow if tensions between the United States and Iran continue to escalate,” Davenport said.

 If the 2015 deal isn’t dead yet, what might kill it, and what would that mean?

At this point, a lot depends on Europe, which has greeted each Iranian step so far with caution along with threats to activate the nuclear pact’s dispute settlement system, which, culminating in a United Nations Security Council vote where the United States has a veto, would basically spell its demise. Iran is trying to pressure Europe to deliver, but it risks pushing Europe to act—in the opposite fashion. On Sunday, Britain, France, and Germany urged Iran to walk back its latest noncompliance with the pact.

“If the Iranians really start moving toward 20 percent enrichment, that would force the EU to activate dispute settlement,” Tanchum said. “If the pact totally unravels, it’s potentially a real nightmare.”

The final death of the nuclear deal would mean no limits—and no international oversight—on Iran’s nuclear activities, which would be a return to the more dangerous world of 2013, when Iran was enriching uranium to 20 percent and was only months away from making a bomb. And the problem isn’t just Iran: Since the Trump administration pulled out of the agreement—despite acknowledging Iran’s compliance—other countries are leery of entering nonproliferation talks with an unreliable negotiating partner.

“The death of the JCPOA will have serious nonproliferation consequences,” Davenport said. “It risks reigniting a new, manufactured, nuclear crisis with Iran, but the implications go far beyond just Iran.”

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

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