On May 8, 2019 - exactly a year after President Donald Trump’s catastrophically ill-advised decision to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and impose financial and economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Tehran was suspending the implementation of two of its commitments under the landmark nuclear accord, signed in 2015. "Tehran has spent a whole year waiting for the remaining signatories to the agreement to fulfill their part of the obligations," Rouhani said in televised remarks.
Tehran insists that since the parties to the 2015 nuclear deal, above all the Europeans, have failed to fully meet their commitments concerning the economic part of the agreement, maintaining the JCPOA in its present form makes no sense. Iran did not follow the US example and leave the JCPOA though. It only warned the other signatories that it might do so, giving them two months to compensate for Washington’s withdrawal and guarantee Iran’s interests. This deadline expired on July 7.
During those past two months, Tehran refused to sell uranium enriched up to 3.67 percent to either Russia or the United States above the 300 kg limit. By the time the JCPOA deal was signed, Iran had accumulated 10,357 kg of such uranium, and 410.4 kg of uranium enriched up to 20 percent. By 2019, Tehran had eliminated its stocks of 20%-enriched uranium and was selling surplus low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and the US. According to the terms of the JCPOA deal, Iran was allowed to enrich limited quantities of uranium for scientific purposes, and export surplus quantities exceeding the 300 kg limit. Now Iran is stocking up on LEU again. Tehran has been doing the same with its surplus heavy water necessary for the production of plutonium, which is at the heart of the production of plutonium-based nuclear weapons. Iran has a heavy water producing plant, which is not on the list of facilities banned by the JCPOA, but it is still not allowed to store more than 130 tons of heavy water. Tehran previously exported 32 tons of heavy water to the United States and 38 tons to the Russian Federation. After May 8, however, it started accumulating heavy water.
President Rouhani insisted that Iran’s interests, above all the freedom to sell oil and the lifting of sanctions imposed on its banking sector, be ensured. No miracle happened though, as the European Union, above all Germany, France and Britain the United Kingdom have failed to create an effective mechanism to compensate for the negative impact of US sanctions on the Iranian economy.
On June 28, Germany, France and the United Kingdom set up INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) – a new transaction channel that will allow companies to continue trading with Iran despite US sanctions. However, this system has so far focused on the supply of humanitarian goods to Iran (medicines, medical equipment, food). Iran wants more though: it needs free oil exports and free banking.
Sadly, the European powers are not yet ready to guarantee this, apparently hating the prospect of coming under Trump’s sanctions.
Iran is now announcing a new stage of its struggle. As it earlier promised, within the next 60 days Tehran will lift restrictions on the level of uranium enrichment (currently at 3.67 percent) bringing it to a level it needs. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent. It’s really a long way moving from 3.67 percent all the way up to 90 percent. What is really dangerous, however, is that Iran is now moving exactly in this direction. Back in January, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said that his country was now all set to resume uranium enrichment in a wider scale and with a higher level of enrichment.
On June 7, AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said that Iran was fully prepared to increase uranium enrichment to any level, adding that the enrichment level would soon be brought to 5 percent. The following day, he said that “Iran has surpassed the uranium enrichment level of 4.5 percent. The level of purity is sufficient to meet the country's needs in providing fuel to our power plants,” he added.
In the second stage of suspensions of its commitments under the JCPOA deal, Iran will move forward also on the plutonium track. It has just announced the termination of work done by a special group of experts concerning the reconstruction of a heavy water reactor in Arak. The IR-40 reactor was designed to produce up to 10 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium a year, which is enough fissile material for making approximately two plutonium bombs. The JCPOA envisages reformatting the reactor so that it is not capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. It is exactly for this purpose that a working group was set up consisting of representatives of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the Atomic Energy Authority of China and the US Department of Energy. In 2017, experts from the United States replaced their British colleagues during the Arak reactor redesign process. According to an official Iranian report released in April 2018, “conceptual reconstruction of the reactor” had already been completed. However, the reconstruction process is slow and easily reversible. At the end of May, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said that "We don’t count on JCPOA and JCPOA participants in the Arak project anymore. We will do it ourselves.”
Finally, it was announced that the process of accumulating heavy water for the IR-40 reactor was in full swing. Allaying all doubts, President Hassan Rouhani said loud and clear that after July 7, Iran would refuse to reformat the Arak reactor and would bring it back to a state, which foreign countries describe as dangerous and capable of producing plutonium, if the other signatories to the JCPOA agreement failed to honor their obligations.
Unpleasant news, but fully predictable too, following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. It took the whole world by surprise.
Berlin has expressed “grave concern” overTehran’s plans to enrich uranium above levels allowed by the JCPOA deal.
“We have repeatedly appealed to Iran not to take further action to destroy the nuclear deal. And now we are urging Tehran to refrain from any steps that are contrary to its commitments under the JCPOA system,” the German foreign ministry said in a statement.
Paris was seriously alarmed by Tehran’s stated desire to raise the level of uranium enrichment above 3.67 percent fissile purity set in the JCPOA.
“We urge Iran to cease all activities that do not meet its obligations under the JCPOA,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
According to the Élysée Palace, President Emmanuel Macron will soon resume consultations on this issue with the Iranian authorities and concerned international partners, and will, before July 15, examine conditions for resuming dialogue with all parties.
London will remain committed to the nuclear deal with Iran, although it believes that Tehran’s actions breach the terms of the agreement, the British Foreign Office said. Simultaneously, the Foreign Office is coordinating its actions with the other signatories to the JCPOA deal and discussing with them what should be done next.
The European Union is extremely concerned about Iran’s plans and is urging Tehran to roll back its nuclear activities, which are not covered by the JCPOA agreement. However, the EU is waiting for official conclusions by the IAEA concerning Tehran’s steps before it outlines its official response.
Iran will take center stage at the meeting of EU foreign ministers, scheduled for July 15.
The EU countries, as co-authors of the JCPOA accord, are mulling the possibility of holding a summit to discuss the situation.
Tokyo is equally worried about Iran’s intention to begin uranium enrichment above 3.67 percent, and urges Tehran to immediately resume the implementation of the JCPOA accord. Japan believes that the Islamic Republic should stick to its commitments under the nuclear deal.
Jerusalem believes that the steps being taken by Iran to raise the level of uranium enrichment are "moderate." Meanwhile, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said that Iran is on its way to producing nuclear bombs.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, described Iran's new decision as "very dangerous," and urged France, Britain and Germany to impose “paralyzing sanctions” on Tehran.
Washington, in the person of President Trump, called the Iranian officials "bad guys," just as he usually does, and advised Tehran to be careful about what it says and does.
“Iran does a lot of bad things. The Obama agreement [on this deal in 2015] was the most foolish agreement that you will ever find,” Trump said. He added that there will be a very serious discussion of this issue, either now or within the next few days. “Iran will never have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said bluntly.
Echoing the president, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is equally tough on Iran intimidating Tehran with new sanctions and threatening to completely isolate the country if it makes no concessions.
The truth is, however, that all this mayhem around Iran was provoked by Washington, while Tehran is just trying to push back the best way it can. Moreover, it is doing this strictly in the framework of the JCPOA, a document approved by Resolution 2231 of the UN Security Council. Article 26 of the JCPOA prescribes the European Union and the United States to refrain from re-introducing or re-imposing sanctions against Iran. Moreover, the Article states that Iran will treat a re-imposition of sanctions or the introduction of new nuclear-related sanctions “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.” This is exactly what Tehran is doing.
Beijing describes President Trump’s policy of "putting maximum pressure" on Iran as the main reason for Tehran’s retaliatory decision to suspend the implementation of some of its commitments under the JCPOA deal. Simultaneously, China regrets the measures being taken by Iran, and calls on all parties to show maximum restraint and stick to the terms of the 2015 nuclear accord in order to avoid any further escalation.
Russia fully understands the reasons behind Iran’s actions, but still urges Tehran to refrain from taking any further steps that could complicate the situation. Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s Permanent Representative at International Organizations in Vienna, hopes that the level of uranium enrichment in Iran will not exceed 5 percent. He also believes that there is no danger of nuclear proliferation.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned against attempts to overdramatize the whole situation and urged the parties to show restraint and keep the nuclear deal alive.
“We urge everyone to show restraint, we urge the European signatories to the JCPOA not to ramp up tensions over the issue. We urge our Iranian colleagues to be extremely responsible, as before, in what they do in this respect, especially where it comes to the implementation of a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA and an additional protocol to this agreement, not to mention maintaining Iran’s participation in the NPT accord. There have been alarming signals to this effect coming from Tehran and we would certainly not welcome, to put it mildly, any movement in this direction,” Ryabkov emphasized.
The IAEA has decided to hold an emergency meeting on the Iranian issue and the Agency’s Board of Governors met on July 10 to discuss concerns about the nuclear report issued by the Iranian authorities.
Virtually the entire world understands Tehran’s position and the measures it has been taking to counteract the US sanctions, but it still urges it to show restraint in order to avoid any further spike in tensions.
Is it really possible to defuse tensions? Well, this depends on multiple factors, both internal and external.
The main thing, however, is whether the European Union is able to make a dent in Washington’s financial, economic (and, above all, oil) blockade of Iran. Will Europe face a serious confrontation with the United States? How satisfied will Tehran be with the EU’s actions and assistance it could get on the matter from China and Russia?
Presently, these questions defy easy answers, although many observers believe that, unfortunately, these answers could be pretty pessimistic. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said that Iran would suspend ever more commitments to the JCPOA once every 60 days if its signatories failed to adhere to the terms of the landmark deal.
What are the further steps that the Iranians could take as they roll back their commitments under the JCPOA deal? According to political analysts, a discontented Iran could keep stocking up on low-enriched uranium and heavy water above the caps set by the nuclear deal. The most dangerous thing, however, is that if Tehran starts to raise the level of uranium enrichment to 20 percent or above, it will restore the nuclear reactor in Arak to the condition it was in before the nuclear deal was signed, and limit, or even end, any oversight by IAEA inspectors.
According to experts, the next, “reverse” re-equipment of the reactor to its pre-2015 state will take a lot of time and cost a lot of money. Despite the really drawn out process of conversion to a “safe” state, the head of AEOI Ali Akbar Salehi said in 2016 that after reconfiguration, the reactor would take between three and four years to go on-stream – sometime around 2020. The reactor, modified according to JCPOA specifications, is about 75 percent ready now. This means that “reverse-converting” it to a working “plutonium” state will take at least several years.
The same is true with the uranium program. According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), in 2013, at the height of its nuclear infrastructure development, of all enriched uranium stored in Iran, about 120-130 kg of 93 percent-enriched uranium could be obtained, which is enough for building five nuclear charges.
US and Israeli physicists believed that it would take between a year or two for Iran to achieve these indicators. It was a purely mathematical calculation though, which ignored a whole variety of external and internal factors. The specialists were not sure that Iran possessed sufficiently advanced technology and chemically pure substances to ensure a gradual increase in uranium enrichment up to 90 percent and be able to turn uranium from gaseous state to that of a high-quality metal, necessary for the creation of a nuclear charge.
Therefore, it would actually take Iran at least a decade to create a ready-for-use nuclear weapon (a missile warhead). And this provided there is no outside interference.
In view of the above, it would be safe to assume that Iran will take months, and in some cases even years, to restore the highest level of its nuclear infrastructure development. This is the relative time frame within which Iran’s nuclear program could get a new start. If, of course, it is allowed to make such a start.
How to prevent a military solution to the Iranian nuclear issue? This question takes us back again to the year 2012. There are two answers: war or negotiations. Since no one wants war, either in Tehran, Washington, Jerusalem or anywhere else, then negotiations are the way to go.
Washington appears ready for negotiations with Tehran without any preliminary conditions, that is, with continued US pressure on Iran and tough sanctions.
Tehran may start negotiations with Washington if these sanctions are lifted and with a permission from the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
On May 31, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "We will welcome the start of negotiations between the US and Iran ... <...> But we are convinced that negotiating from the position of "first, I will strangle you economically, and then you will beg us to negotiate," is not something we perceive as a model for behavior on the foreign policy front.”
The views of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of the Editorial Board.