At the start of this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed the Iranian regime’s latest violations of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The installation of more advanced centrifuges for uranium enrichment, as well as higher quantities of first-generation centrifuges, has been referred to by Iranian authorities as to the “third step” in scaling back its commitments under the erstwhile seven-party agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The process of moving away from the JCPOA has arguably been slower for Iran than for the United States. President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the agreement in May of last year, but sanctions that were suspended under that agreement were only re-imposed after two back-to-back 90-day grace periods. Furthermore, those sanctions did not take full effect until a year after the withdrawal, when the White House declined to renew waivers that had been granted to eight major purchasers of Iranian oil.
In that time, other sanctions have also been imposed on the Iranian regime and various individuals and groups affiliated with the theocratic regime. Most recent estimates indicate that the volume of Iran’s oil exports have consequently been reduced to 300,000 barrels per day (and possibly lower), from a peak of roughly two million shortly after the JCPOA came into effect. Furthermore, the Trump administration has been keeping the pressure on Europeans, especially those who were a party to the nuclear negotiations, to adjust their policies so as to support the strategy of “maximum pressure.”
The Europeans have been broadly resistant to this pressure, but some of the reporting on Iran’s escalating JCPOA violations suggest that they are gradually lurching toward the American position. Although predictable, this outcome is apparently the opposite of what Iran had intended after it first threatened to move away from its commitment under the nuclear deal. That threat took the form of an ultimatum, with Iranian officials repeatedly insisting that the violations would continue in a piecemeal fashion until the European Union – especially France, Germany, and Britain – took measures to provide Iran with economic incentives that counteract the effects of US sanctions.
To buttress that ultimatum, Tehran has claimed to still be participating in the JCPOA, even in the aftermath of its “three steps” toward wholly suspended compliance. Prior to installing new centrifuges, Iranian authorities announced that they had exceeded defined limits on the nation’s stockpile of nuclear material, as well as limits on the level of enrichment purity they could attain through the operation of those centrifuges. The IAEA confirmed each of these violations but has seemingly characterized them as modest.
The Iranian regime is only known to have enriched uranium to 4.5 percent fissile purity in recent weeks, while the limit is 3.67 percent. And in its report on Monday, the IAEA noted that more advanced centrifuges had been installed but were not yet operational. However, Tehran has personally undermined any potential arguments that the existing violations are not particularly serious.
For instance, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said last Saturday that the nation was prepared to move “much more beyond” the peak levels of uranium enrichment it had achieved before nuclear negotiations began. Previously, he and other officials had bragged that this could be accomplished in a matter of days. And in what may be an effort to support this assertion, Tehran has even outlined specific plans for expanded operations at its nuclear facilities. These include the operation of 20 IR-4 centrifuges and 20 IR-6 models, which are capable of enriching uranium five times faster and ten times faster, respectively, than the basic IR-1s that are permitted under the JCPOA.
Iran’s nuclear authority also reportedly plans to arrange more than 300 mid-range centrifuges into “cascades,” which will allow them to work together to enrich fissile material much faster. Meanwhile, other breaches of the nuclear deal remain on the table as the regime promotes a standing threat of proceeding to a “fourth step” and beyond. These include the expansion of operations at the Arak heavy water plant which could yield plutonium suitable for use in a nuclear bomb.
Even as this threat looms, the Iranian regime continues to insist that its actions are permitted by a dispute resolution provision in paragraph 36 of the JCPOA. While claiming that all of their violations to date are reversible, the Iranians also maintain that they do not need to stand by their commitments as long as other signatories are not holding up their own end. But it would be difficult to apply this logic to the re-imposition of US sanctions since the US is clearly no longer a party to that agreement. That leaves Iran with the much more dubious argument that the remaining signatories are obligated to counteract measures undertaken by a non-participating nation.
Of course, the Europeans have consistently rejected this logic, and lawmakers from France, Germany, Britain, and the EU have all called upon the Iranian regime to reverse its recent steps immediately rather than risking the complete collapse of the nuclear agreement. This week’s media reports cited those statements as evidence for the Europeans’ drift toward endorsement of maximum pressure. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime’s own conduct has no doubt helped to push its adversaries in that direction.
Whereas the Europeans have remained focused on encouraging negotiations as a means of saving the deal, the Iranians have variously dismissed that goal, with officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps arguing that such negotiations would “only benefit the enemy.” Others made it clear that they do not share the European fixation on preserving the JCPOA as it currently exists. One senior Iranian lawmaker was quoted by NBC News as saying that the fourth step in the direction of Iranian non-compliance would be the “final nail in the coffin” for the 2015 deal.
Such statements bode ill for the prospect of Tehran responding favorably to the urging of the EU or the IAEA, both of which have arguably sought to defend the regime against an aggressive response to its initial violations. After affirming but gently downplaying those violations, the IAEA said on Monday that “time is of the essence” for the Islamic Republic to respond to the questions and concerns that have been raised in the midst of ongoing tensions.
“I think that was a message very well understood,” said the UN agency’s acting head Cornel Feruta after a Vienna meeting that involved Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif among others. But Iran now has two months in which to answer the given questions, and that deadline is expected to arrive only after the deadline set by Iran for European actions that would forestall the “fourth step.” This underscores the existence of a contest to see which side will blink first, and for the time being there does not appear to be any consensus among experts regarding which outcome is more likely.
On one hand, the Europeans remain under pressure from the US and other staunch opponents of the Iranian regime. At the same time, they are receiving few indications of the Iranians’ willingness to compromise. And both of these factors gain additional importance from the nature of certain questions posed by the IAEA in the recent meeting. These stem from the investigation of allegations made by Israel and backed up by the US, concerning an undisclosed facility that was used for experiments to develop nuclear weapons and was partially leveled after it became clear that Israel had knowledge of it.
The IAEA reportedly found unexplained traces of nuclear material at the site, contradicting Iran’s claim that it was a carpet-cleaning facility. American officials then seized upon this incident to help build consensus on the need for more assertive action to uncover and confront the regime’s illicit behaviors. “The Iranian regime’s lack of full cooperation with [the IAEA] raises questions about possible undeclared nuclear material or activities,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said via Twitter. “This fits into Iran’s 40-year pattern of lies.”