Iran breaches uranium cap: Are they sending a message to Trump’s sanctions regime?

Iran has breached the limit on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium set under a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed after inspectors verified the 300kg-cap—the level required for civilian nuclear power—had been breached.

Iran is also stepping up production of high-enriched uranium used to make reactor fuel but also potentially nuclear bombs, as it had warned it would do in May. The government threatened on Sunday that enrichment beyond 3.67% would start in 10 days unless European powers took “practical and tangible steps” to implement the alternative payment mechanism known as INSTEX, for facilitating trade and shielding the Iranian economy from the tyranny of US sanctions.

The developments come in response to the tightening of oil sanctions by the US after President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal to hammer out a better one by turning up economic pressure on Iran.

The Islamic Republic cited that clause in the Obama-era agreement that says, a party could “cease performing its commitments… in whole or in part” in the event of “significant non-performance” by any of the other parties.

Response from signatories and US

President Donald Trump warned that the country was “playing with fire” after exceeding the limit. The IAEA report arrives on the heels of high tension in the MENA region, with Iran shooting down a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz and allegedly attacking US oil tankers.

While the US announced its strategy of “maximum pressure” would continue, European powers including the UK and Germany have called on President Hasan Rouhani to reverse his decision regarding exceeding the uranium cap.

Signatories to the deal can call for a re-imposition of multilateral sanctions on Iran now; these sanctions were lifted in exchange for Iran limiting its nuclear activities 4 years ago.

“We have been consistently clear that our commitment to the JCPOA depends on Iran complying in full with the terms of the deal and we urge them to reverse this step,” a spokesperson of British Prime Minister Theresa May said Sunday.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that “such action by the Islamic Republic of Iran would not help preserve the plan, nor secure the tangible economic benefits for the Iranian people”.

The “plan” at the centre of this conflict

Trump imposed sanctions on Iran after he made the US pull out of the Obama-led Iran nuclear deal of 2015.

The 2015 deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), lifts sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country ensuring its nuclear programme is “exclusively peaceful”.

Under this deal, Iran was to get billions in relief on lifting of sanctions on its trade, technology, finance, and energy sectors. The country’s oil sector alone had suffered a loss of $160 billion under sanctions.

Iran agreed to get rid of its centrifuges and most of its bomb-making material and promised not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons in the future. The country even agreed to regular, on-ground monitoring and inspections by international officials.

Regional powerplay and forbearing US

Although Saudi Arabia and Israel protested to the deal, claiming Iran is dishonest about its nuclear intentions, the US, China, Russia, UK, France, Germany, and EU at large signed the deal with Iran.

The signatories agreed that the deal wasn’t perfect but a step in the right direction. However, after being elected, Trump made the US back out of it, saying the deal was “terrible” and “defective at its core”.

He also said it is ludicrous to believe Iran’s “murderous regime” only wants a peaceful nuclear energy programme. He added that the 2015 deal was a gateway to Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal that could be used against the US.

Hence, in 2018, Trump announced that he would cancel the previously negotiated deal and threatened Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before”. He also re-imposed sanctions on Iran’s oil exports. 

Also read:What life without Iran’s oil looks like: India finds out; world will too, soon

The US believes that oil sanctions will help increase pressure on Iran because they will choke its import revenue. By tightening sanctions on Iranian oil exports, the US hopes to cripple its economy enough for popular unrest to rise against the existing power structures like in 1979, and hammer out an acceptable nuclear deal, or do one better – bring the nation to its heel once again. 

UN, EU defend the 2015 deal

US-Iran tensions have been on the rise ever since Trump abandoned the nuclear deal last year, but the latest foreign policy targeting Iran’s oil-dependent economy has further escalated tensions between the two nuclear powers.

Late in 2018, Trump said he was “ready to make a real deal” with Iran but offered no details. US National Security Adviser John Bolton said in April, “The [US’s Iran] policy is not regime change, but we definitely want to put maximum pressure on this government.” 

Even though Trump withdrew the US from the Obama-era agreement, the UK, France, and Germany however, agreed to stick to and honour the 2015 deal. They condemned Trump’s actions claiming that the deal is the current strongest deterrent to an arms race in the Middle East.

The 2015 agreement simply sought to stall the country’s nuclear ambitions for a decade and a half, and was hailed even by the UN as a “major achievement in nuclear non-proliferation and diplomacy and has contributed to regional and international peace and security”.

Jonathan Friedland writing for The Guardian condemns the US for being a rogue state risking global security, while acknowledging that Iran’s regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution is a prime funder of terror groups in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, an ally of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous rule in Syria, with a brutal record of suppressing domestic dissent.

But the US entered the deal in 2015, he writes, knowing fully well that Iran’s foreign and domestic policies were flawed. What should have mattered is that Iran has kept up its end of the bargain as far as the nuclear deal is concerned. The US was the one that walked away without any concrete reason.

But will this achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament in the volatile MENA region?

Iran disagrees and has accused the US of violating international law by backing out of a signed agreement. Tehran threatened to partially withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement, a year after it was abandoned by the US.

After the US lifted the waiver on six countries to import Iranian oil, Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that the US was bullying Iran, and Trump’s isolationist mindset cannot be allowed to destroy the international order. On Sunday, he spoke to Iranian state media saying, “The Europeans have failed to fulfil their promises of protecting Iran’s interests under the deal.”

Iran had imposed a 60-day ultimatum starting in May, for the remaining parties of the nuclear deal —France, Germany, Russia, China, and the UK — to protect the Islamic Republic from US oil and banking sanctions.

President Hassan Rouhani said he will no longer sell enriched uranium stocks abroad, categorically adding that the production of higher-enriched uranium will resume in 10 days if they failed to meet their financial and oil commitments to the deal.

Rouhani was also very clear about what happens if these nations follow US sanctions or refer the nuclearisation case to the United Nations Security Council. “Iran would begin higher enrichment of uranium, which is currently capped, and begin developing its Arak heavy water reactor based on plans made prior to the deal,” BBC reported the Iranian leader as saying.

Instead of relaxing its hardline stance even after Iran’s clear message it would increase uranium enrichment, the US threatened further action unless Tehran “fundamentally” changed its behaviour. 

Why this matters and what’s next

After North Korea, Iran has not only become another site of Trump’s failing strategies at neutralising Asian nuclear threats, but the consequences of playing hardball with Tehran are more immediate, far-flung, and economically dire.

But Iran, unlike NK, has no capability to deliver a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) inter-continentally from which the US would be unable to shield itself. It poses no existential threat beyond the middle east.

More importantly, Iran’s signature to the JCPOA is the biggest proof of its distinction from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. It may be worth noting at this point, that the US does not seem to have any objections to India’s own proliferating nuclear arsenal either.

These contradictory attitudes have led many experts to suspect that the scandalous disinterest of the Trump Administration in improving relations with Iran could be a part of the US agenda to empower regional rival Saudi Arabia, economically as well as politically, in a bid to control the region via proxy wars.

BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus claimed that Americans want “more capitulation rather than negotiation.”

For Iran, the solo existential threat is posed by Sunni extremist groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS and their sponsors that ostensibly threaten Shiite interests, keeping Iran engaged in the proxy conflicts across the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. Experts claim no good can come of the US taking sides in a centuries-old crusade.

Now that the deal is in tatters

Zarif has stressed on Sunday that Iran’s measures were “reversible” if the Europeans began abiding by their commitments.

With Iran ready to relinquish its commitments to the nuclear deal a year after the US abandoned it, all eyes are now on the remaining parties to save the deal in order to deescalate rising tensions in the MENA region. As critics have observed, the deal hangs by a thread, depending heavily on European players, Russia, and China to de-escalate the war-like situation brewing in the Persian Gulf.

Last month, Russia and China blocked a US-led bid at the United Nations Security Council to declare that North Korea violated international sanctions by importing more petroleum products than stipulated. If they can stand up to the US forces on behalf of Iran, that would send a strong message; conversely, with the MENA region warming up following the US sanctions on Iran’s oil, any defence of Rouhani’s government could also lead to an escalation of the conflict, even a nuclear showdown.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt reportedly alerted Pompeo to the real consequences if Iran were to pull out of the deal that Hunt called “a very important achievement.” “Iran does not have nuclear weapons and its neighbours have not responded by getting nuclear weapons,” Hunt said. “It would be a massive step back for the region if it became nuclearised.”

While France and Germany also vowed to salvage the deal, they have not openly blamed the US for the current crisis, as Russia has. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Sunday called Iran’s move a cause of regret and “a natural consequence of all the events that preceded these circumstances.” He was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying, “Effectively, we are talking about a total oil embargo, an attempt to strangle a sovereign state.”

China too has strongly condemned US threats to attack Iran following Bolton and Mike Pompeo’s dramatic militarisation of the Gulf in consort with Iraq. Meanwhile, the UN has called Trump’s unilateral sanctions a direct violation of human rights that may precipitate “humanitarian catastrophes of unprecedented proportions.”

On that note, Iran’s threat to enrich uranium beyond 3.67% is a major concern from a proliferation standpoint.

Enriched uranium is produced by feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges to separate out the most suitable isotope for nuclear fission, called U-235. Under the nuclear deal, Iran is only permitted to produce low-enriched uranium, which has a 3-4% concentration of U-235, and can be used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants. Weapons-grade uranium is 90% enriched or more.

Even though Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful, experts believed that even 20% enriched uranium and a 1,050 kg stockpile would mean Iran is equipped to build a nuclear bomb.

Simply put, none of Trump’s European allies particularly have his back owing partly to his alienating policies with each of them and the dilemma that now faces them: to meet Iran’s demands and keep its centrifuges silent, or return to the unstable world in which Iran is moving toward nuclear capability.

Meanwhile, Iran’s purported attempts to make clean energy from nuclear power continues to be dismissed and under-reported. If sincere and successful, the Republic could set a precedent in the time of climate action and resurrect its sputtering economy at the same time.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

IranIran Nuclear DealTrump Administration