Iran is chipping away at its nuclear deal obligations, while emphasizing that its calculated breaches are reversible and that it will uphold the nuclear agreement as long as the other side fulfills its terms.
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs via JNS
On July 7, 2019, the ultimatum Iran posed to the countries still signed on to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action expired, and Iranian leaders announced the country would take further steps to violate the deal. Days earlier Iran had already crossed the deal’s threshold of 300 kg. of enriched uranium (enriched to a low level, 3.67 percent), as it had threatened to do.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI), said Iran would start enriching uranium to a higher purity than 3.67 per cent. The IAEA has confirmed that Iran is now enriching uranium to a higher level. Iran has previously said it needs 5 percent enrichment for its Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) and 20 percent for the research reactor in Tehran.
From a 20 percent enrichment level, it is a short way to the 90 percent level needed to produce nuclear weapons.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araqchi said Iran had prepared a step-by-step strategy for further eroding its nuclear commitments in collaboration with the AEOI. Araqchi was speaking at a press briefing together with Kamalvandi and government spokesman Ali Rabiei, to officially announce the start of uranium enrichment beyond levels stipulated in the JCPOA.
Araqchi added that Iran has set a new 60-day deadline for the remaining European JCPOA signatories, while threatening that it will take a “third step” of scaling back its commitments unless its demands are met.
On May 8, 2019, exactly one year after the United States withdrew from the JCPOA, Iran gave the other signatories 60 days to meet their commitments to provide Iran with the economic benefits it is entitled to under the deal.
Araqchi said a letter written by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had been sent to the E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to formally announce the second 60-day deadline and the launch of the “second step” of Iran’s scaling back on its commitments under the JCPOA, including raised levels of uranium enrichment. He added that details of the “third step” will be announced in due time.
“The AEOI is ready to implement the required measures at any point,” he said, adding that “we have totally contemplated the third and next steps.” He said Iran is simultaneously conducting “diplomatic consultations” and planning “political initiatives.”
Iran is continuing to exert heavy diplomatic pressure on Europe while taking actions that are clear breaches of the nuclear deal. Tehran claims it wants to create symmetry in relations between the signatories and says its violations are a response to the European countries’ infringements of their economic commitments to Iran—particularly regarding the INSTEX mechanism that is meant to circumvent the American sanctions. The mechanism—a “mechanism without money” as the president of Iran called it—has indeed begun to operate in part, but is still far from satisfying Iran’s demands.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that starting on July 7, Iran would accelerate its plans to renew work at the heavy-water reactor in Arak so that it can produce plutonium and “restore [the reactor]to its previous state, if the Europeans do not honor their commitments.”
Iran has not yet closed the door on a resumption of negotiations. It emphasizes that the calculated steps it has taken and will take are reversible and that it will uphold the nuclear agreement as long as the other side fulfills its terms. At the same time, the verbal wrangling between U.S. President Donald Trump and the Iranian leadership continues, focusing on Iran’s violations of the deal and a possible reaction to them. In response to Rouhani’s words, Trump tweeted: “Be careful with the threats, Iran. They can come back to bite you like nobody has been bitten before!” Previously Trump had tweeted that “Iran is playing with fire.”
In reaction, Rouhani said in a governmental meeting on July 3, “If the United States is afraid of fire, it should not ignite it … fires can be put out only by honoring obligations and U.N. resolutions.” The Iranian president added that it was the United States that began “the fireworks display in the region about a year ago [by withdrawing from the agreement], and it is the one now claiming that Iran is the one playing with fire.”
Rouhani criticized the European countries for a policy of starving the 82 million people of Iran and said that Iran would carry out its plan to breach the agreement once the ultimatum expired. This, he said, was intended to “salvage the nuclear deal.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif insisted that Iran’s decision to increase its stock of enriched uranium beyond the quantity permitted by the nuclear deal does not constitute a violation and that Iran is entitled to overstep it based on Article 36 of the agreement (which deals with cases of violations by one of the sides).
“If the Europeans claim that they continue to abide by the agreement,” Zarif continued, “then they too must honor the guarantees contained in it. But so far, to our sorrow, a year after the United States withdrew from the deal, they have not done enough to salvage it and hence Iran has been forced to withdraw from some of its commitments.”
Zarif added that “as Iran’s president said, the steps are reversible if the Europeans act as they should.” The Iranian foreign minister added that the INSTEX mechanism to circumvent the sanctions is no more than a gateway toward fulfilling all of Europe’s obligations. “The Europeans pledged to ensure the sale of Iranian oil and to return assets but have not done so.” When asked what would happen if the United States were to impose sanctions on the mechanism, Zarif replied: “That is a problem for Europe to solve by itself.”
Israel will be destroyed in half an hour
Alongside the diplomatic activity and the nuclear steps Iran embarked on in contravention of the agreement, senior Iranian officials continue to warn of the repercussions of a military clash with the United States and its allies in the region.
On June 30, 2019, Mojtaba Zalnour, who was recently elected chairman of the Majlis’ (Iranian parliament’s) National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said that if the United States attacks Iran, “Israel will be destroyed in half an hour.” Zalnour, who served in the past as the Supreme Leader’s deputy representative to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is one of the prominent opponents of the nuclear deal (indeed, he burned it together with the American flag after the deal was confirmed).
Zalnour claimed that the American Global Hawk naval surveillance drone shot down by Iran on June 20, 2019, was located in the same area where the U.S. Navy downed an Iranian passenger plane (Iran Air Flight 655) on July 3, 1984, a landmark incident in tense Iranian-U.S. relations. Zalnour remarked: “At that time the United States managed to hit us, today we are hitting them.” He added that “we also have the ability to sink aircraft carriers.” He said at the time of the drone intercept, Iran could have intercepted an American surveillance plane with 25 passengers aboard, but refrained from doing so.
Iran marked the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988, by the American USS Vincennes cruiser, in memorial ceremonies and the announcement of a cartoon competition depicting the United States as a terrorist state.
Although the United States and Iran are maintaining their harsh rhetoric, the door has not yet closed on a renewal of the negotiations on the nuclear deal in a way that would placate both sides. Until July 10 Iran avoided high-profile attacks in the Persian Gulf or Iraq, though in Yemen the Houthis continue to attack targets in Saudi territory (as they had already begun to do on the eve of the crisis). The United States, for its part, is also signaling it does not want war.
Meanwhile, Iran keeps signaling to Europe, as part of diplomatic pressure aimed at renewing the negotiations and getting Europe to fulfill its obligations, that Iran is serious about breaching its commitments and increasing the rate of uranium production as well as the enrichment level. At the same time, Tehran says that the steps are reversible and depend on what Europe does. The United States is staying with its policy of harsh sanctions. Possibly, though, as a goodwill gesture toward the renewal of negotiations, it will again allow a certain amount of leeway for some countries regarding oil exports, or at least refrain from imposing sanctions on the mechanism for circumventing the sanctions.
In any case, both sides now prefer the diplomatic game (which may already be transpiring behind the scenes) and are settling for heated rhetoric instead of war. Will the internal debate within the Trump administration be settled enough to push the demands on Iran’s ballistic missiles and terrorism activity off the agenda in return for an achievement on the nuclear issue (such as extending the sunset clause)? Or will the administration stick to its demands while increasing the sanctions? The issue has yet to be decided.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Acumen Risk Advisors.
This article originally appeared at the JCPA website.