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Iran Challenges Remaining Partners to Save Nuclear Deal
Iran Challenges Remaining Partners to Save Nuclear Deal
A man passes a mural painted on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, on 9 May 2018. US President Donald Trump announced a 'withdrawal' from the Iran nuclear deal on 9 May 2018. Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agenc

Iran Challenges Remaining Partners to Save Nuclear Deal

Responding to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure”, Iran has announced it will no longer respect all the limits placed on its nuclear research activities by its 2015 deal with world powers. With Washington having renounced the deal, the remaining signatories should hasten to save it.

One year ago today, President Donald Trump announced that he was withdrawing the U.S. from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Until now, Iran, as repeatedly confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has abided by the restrictions placed by the nuclear agreement on its proliferation activities, despite rapidly declining returns. That status quo was increasingly untenable; Iran’s decision today is the predictable and unwelcome result. As Crisis Group has long argued, the burden now falls on the JCPOA’s remaining signatories to cooperate with one another on finding ways to provide Iran with a meaningful economic incentive that in turn could allow Tehran to come back into full compliance with the JCPOA and avoid a much more dangerous escalation.

In a statement issued on 8 May by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which sets the country’s major domestic and foreign policies, Iran announced that it would no longer “commit itself to respecting the limits on the keeping of enriched uranium and heavy water reserves at the current stage”. It went on to present a 60-day ultimatum to the deal’s remaining participants (Russia, China, France, Germany and the UK) to ensure that the economic normalisation envisioned under the JCPOA’s terms, increasingly curtailed in the face of a withering unilateral U.S. sanctions campaign, is addressed. Should the two months pass without a breakthrough by the P4+1, the SNSC warned, “Iran will suspend compliance with the uranium enrichment limits and measures to modernise the Arak Heavy Water Reactor”. In remarks to the Iranian cabinet, President Hassan Rouhani asserted that “we are announcing the reduction of our commitments, not withdrawal from it”.

Iran has opted for minimum retaliatory measures in response to U.S. maximum pressure. This suggests that Tehran hopes to keep the deal alive until the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

The response from Iran’s JCPOA interlocutors has thus far been cautious and concerned. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has been hosting his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in Moscow, put the blame for the looming crisis on Washington, citing “the U.S.’s irresponsible behaviour”. The Chinese government, too, suggested that “the U.S. has further aggravated the tension on the Iranian nuclear issue”, while urging that cooler heads prevail. The latter sentiment is also clear in the statements of European parties, but not without an accompanying warning. “There are no sanctions today from Europe because Iran has so far always respected the commitments it has taken”, France’s defence minister explained. “If these commitments were not respected, naturally this question would be asked”. 

There are several lessons from today’s developments:

  1. Iran has opted for minimum retaliatory measures in response to U.S. maximum pressure. This suggests that Tehran hopes to keep the deal alive until the outcome of the U.S. presidential election becomes clear in November 2020. The framing of these measures as in line with the JCPOA’s paragraphs 26 and 36 proves that Iran is trying to remain within the deal’s framework. In essence, Iran is signalling its desire to maintain its strategic patience policy, but coupling that gesture with a warning that its patience is wearing very thin, especially given rising domestic criticism of the Rouhani administration’s restraint.
  2. The two measures announced today pose different proliferation risks. Heavy water overproduction would not in the short run enhance Iran’s capabilities to dash for nuclear weapons, if it decided to do so. A new IAEA report is expected later this month, but according to the last one Tehran had 124.8 metric tonnes of heavy water back in February. If Iran continues producing at the same average pace as before (two tonnes per month), it would not reach the threshold before 7 July. As to the low enriched uranium (LEU) threshold, Iran had 163.8kg of uranium enriched to 3.67 per cent. Tehran has the capacity to produce around 100kg of LEU per month. If it does so, it will surpass the limit before the 60-day deadline, and thus start shortening its breakout timeline (the time needed to enrich enough uranium for a single nuclear weapon) from one year to less than that. But Tehran remains in control of how fast it desires to escalate. The good news is that because Iran is still implementing the Additional Protocol to the Nonproliferation Treaty, the IAEA can monitor all of these activities closely.
  3. Washington is no position to complain about these Iranian violations, because it committed the original sin by unilaterally withdrawing from the deal last year. Moreover, by revoking waivers for countries to purchase excess production of Iran’s heavy water and LEU last week, the Trump administration had rendered compliance with these commitments nearly impossible for Tehran. So by choosing these two measures as its first response, Iran is making clear where the blame lies.
  4. The bigger concern is the 60-day deadline, which raises risks of an escalatory spiral. This agreement's erosion could well pick up pace in the next few months as Washington doubles down on its sanctions and Iran digs in. If Iran restarts work on the Arak heavy water reactor or increases the volume or level of its uranium enrichment in July, it will compel the Europeans to trigger the snapback of the UN sanctions, which will be the kiss of death for the JCPOA.
  5. With Iran insisting that they step up their efforts to salvage the deal, and threatening otherwise to withdraw, the ball is now in the court of the deal’s remaining signatories. Europe has done a lot to establish a banking channel, but this step is only one of many to which Brussels committed, and it is not yet operational. The reality is that Russia and China have not done much, either, and the latter seems to have given in to U.S. pressures by reducing its oil imports from Iran. Now is the time for Russia, China, France, Germany and the UK to intensify their cooperation with one another and implement steps that could provide Iran with a meaningful economic incentive that in turn would allow Tehran to come back into full compliance with the JCPOA. For instance, China could continue to buy oil from Iran or Russia could engage in oil swaps with Tehran (with the latter providing some of Russia’s energy needs in the south in return for the former exporting the same amount of oil on Iran’s behalf) and inject the proceeds as credit into the European special banking channel that would allow Iran to import goods from Europe.

The Trump administration’s continuous tightening of the economic squeeze and repeated calls on Europe to exit the agreement always carried the risk of provoking an Iranian response. The administration’s self-proclaimed goals were to change Iran’s behaviour and get a better deal. As should have been clear from the outset, those stated aims were always wholly unrealistic. But they were not the real objectives. For at least some senior U.S. officials, escalation with Iran is and always has been the name of the game. That is precisely what the remaining parties to the deal should strive to avoid.

U.S. President Trump and Iranian President Rouhani address the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-fourth session, 24 and 25 September 2019. Flickr/The White House, UNMedia/United Nations, CRISISGROUP

Iran Briefing Note #15

Iran Briefing Notes, of which this is the last of a series of 15 that began on 20 June 2019, highlight and provide context for major events featured on International Crisis Group’s Iran-U.S. Trigger List. This infographic resource tracks key flashpoints between Iran, the U.S. and their respective allies in the Middle East. 

Events of Note

Download the printable PDF and browse our interactive U.S.-Iran Trigger List for more updates. 

19 September: UAE signs on to U.S.-led International Maritime Security Construct.

20 September: U.S. sanctions Iran’s central bank, national development fund.

20 September: U.S. announces troop deployments to Saudi Arabia.

23 September: Joint UK/France/Germany statement says “Iran bears responsibility” for 14 September Aramco attack.

24 September: U.S. embassy in Baghdad issues security alert warning of “heightened tensions in the region” a day after rockets were launched toward Green Zone.

24 September: President Donald Trump tells UN General Assembly that “as long as Iran’s menacing behaviour continues, sanctions will not be lifted; they will be tightened”.

25 September: JCPOA ministerial meeting takes place in New York.

25 September: In UN General Assembly address, President Hassan Rouhani tells U.S. to “stop the sanctions so as to open the way for the start of negotiations”.  

25 September: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces “new action to disentangle the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the Iranian economy”; new sanctions designations.

25 September: President Trump issues a proclamation “to restrict and suspend the entry into the U.S., as immigrants or non-immigrants, of senior government officials of Iran, and their immediate family members”.

26 September: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei contends that the Europeans “cannot be trusted at all, as they have betrayed all their commitments”.

27 September: Stena Bulk announces that Stena Impero, detained by Iran in July, "has now left Iranian waters". 

Ships in the Night

French President Emmanuel Macron on 24 September asserted that “the conditions … for a rapid return to negotiations have been created”. “It is now up to the Iranians and the U.S. to seize these conditions and work together to relaunch momentum”, he added.

Why it matters: Presidents Rouhani and Trump spent much of the week within a few New York city blocks from each other, but Iran and the U.S. remained poles apart on a diplomatic breakthrough. Despite efforts by President Macron and others to facilitate a direct and unprecedented meeting between the two leaders, the core conundrum, apparent for some time, remained unresolved: Tehran expects a financial reprieve before engaging in discussions that could lead to a meeting between the two presidents, while President Trump wants a meeting with his Iranian counterpart as the first step toward eventual sanctions relief. So long as neither side is willing to budge, their respective strategies – in Iran’s case, flexing its muscles on the nuclear and regional fronts; in Washington’s, the application of maximum economic coercion – remain a recipe for escalating tension. Yet the non-occurrence of a tête-a-tête ought not discourage fresh attempts to fashion a tactical de-escalation.


In remarks after chairing a 25 September JCPOA ministerial meeting, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini stated that “there is a will to try and preserve the deal”, but also acknowledged that “it is increasingly difficult to do it”.

Why it matters: Iran’s incremental breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal, and Europe’s limited capacity to provide the economic benefits the agreement was meant to deliver, are sorely testing its core bargain. The most recent EU-Iran trade data illustrates the challenge in offsetting the impact of unilateral U.S. sanctions: for the period from January to July 2019, Iran’s exports collapsed by almost 94 per cent compared to last year; total trade was a quarter of 2018 levels. Furthermore, while the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) have thus far generally managed to keep the nuclear portfolio distinct from their concerns on other aspects of Iranian regional behaviour, the two sides traded barbs over Iranian culpability in the 14 September Aramco attack, which could portend a further straining of the thread by which the JCPOA still hangs.

Programming Note

This briefing note series was conceived and launched in June as a supplement to Crisis Group’s coverage and analysis of U.S.-Iran tensions. What was originally envisioned as a temporary endeavour has, owing to the rapidity and significance of developments on the regional and nuclear fronts, continued over fifteen editions. This is the final instalment. Yet we will continue to track developments on a daily basis through the Trigger List platform, as well as longer-form Crisis Group publications, and will introduce new formats as events dictate.

What to Watch

7-8 October: Warsaw Process working group meeting on cybersecurity in South Korea.

10-11 October: Warsaw Process working group meeting on human rights in the U.S.

21-22 October: Warsaw Process working group meeting on maritime and aviation security in Bahrain.

24-25 October: Warsaw Process working group meeting on energy security in Poland.

4 November: 40th anniversary of the U.S. embassy hostage crisis.

5 November: Iran’s next announced deadline for further reducing its JCPOA commitments.

8 November: Next quarterly International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear program.

14-15 November: Warsaw Process working group meeting on missile proliferation in Romania.

Download the printable PDF and browse our interactive U.S.-Iran Trigger List for more updates.