Tehran says it will stop complying with elements of the accord unless the countries that remain live up to their commitments. But those five states are unlikely to stand up to U.S. pressure.
The 2015 Iran deal is dying—not with a bang, but with a series of whimpers. Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the agreement featured at its center a simple bargain: Iran would agree to verifiable limits on its civil nuclear program given past concerns about nuclear weaponization; in exchange, Tehran would receive economic relief from sanctions related to its nuclear activities. The agreement lasted in that form until last year, when the Trump administration announced that the United States would stop complying with its commitments under the agreement and reimpose sanctions on both Iran and, eventually, those who do business with the Islamic Republic.
Exactly one year to the day since President Donald Trump’s declaration, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced a phased set of measures that would suspend some of Iran’s commitments under the agreement, while underscoring that Tehran remained within the JCPOA. He said Tehran would immediately stop observing limits on building up its domestic stockpiles of low-enriched uranium—the kind suitable for reactor use, but not weaponization—and heavy water. After a 60-day period, unless the other signatories of the accord—Britain, France, Germany (the so-called E3), China, and Russia—managed to deliver on economic benefits in the oil and banking sectors, Tehran would suspend further compliance with sections of the JCPOA, Rouhani added.
Rouhani’s announcement implicitly made clear recent developments that forced Tehran’s hand. On May 3, a State Department statement said that the U.S. would sanction any individuals or entities involved with the JCPOA-permitted uranium swaps (allowing Iran to send enriched uranium out of its borders in exchange for natural uranium). The statement also noted that the storage of heavy water in excess of current limits would not be permitted by the United States, nor should “any such heavy water … be made available to Iran in any fashion.”
In effect, however expensive continued compliance with the deal might have gotten for Iran after the Trump administration reimposed sanctions last year, the U.S. had now sought to change the very terms of compliance—even though it is no longer party to the pact. The remaining countries, try as they might, have been unable to present Iran with a sufficiently robust solution that would work around the reimposed sanctions.
As a result, Rouhani’s decision to underscore that at the end of the 60-day period Tehran might overshoot existing heavy water and low-enriched uranium limits conveys precisely to the E3, Russia, and China where the blame for its decision should rest: with the United States. Make no mistake: These steps announced by Rouhani would measurably degrade the nonproliferation effectiveness of the JCPOA and, over time, breaking the enriched-uranium-stockpile limit in particular would serve to shorten Tehran’s breakout time to a single weaponized nuclear device, if a political decision to pursue that path were to be made. Because all the remaining parties to the agreement would seek to avoid that outcome, Iran might hope it is creating the right set of incentives for the E3, Russia, and China to independently seek a rollback from the United States.
The E3+2 remain committed to preserving the JCPOA as agreed in 2015. However, where Iran might have miscalculated in an attempt to increase the urgency with which the remaining parties react is in what it said will come after the 60-day period. Rouhani announced that should the remaining parties fail to fulfill their commitments to Iran—specifically on oil and banking, two areas hit hardest by last year’s U.S. sanctions—Tehran would also cease observing JCPOA limits of enrichment levels and roll back modernization of the heavy-water IR-40 reactor at Arak. These measures raise the greatest proliferation concern, and Iran’s following through on them would take the JCPOA past a point of no return. Most importantly, if the International Atomic Energy Agency were to find Iran in violation of these commitments, the E3+2 might find it difficult to avoid a referral to the UN Security Council to “snap back” pre-2015 nuclear sanctions on Iran. This was always intended to serve as a measure to punish Iran for noncompliance; its use would be agnostic to the reasons why Tehran chose to abjure its commitments. Moreover, the Trump administration would get a vote given the U.S. seat at the Security Council.
In Shakespearean terms, the tragedy of the JCPOA is halfway through the fourth act—the falling action that followed last year’s climactic decision by the United States to gut any value the agreement had for Iran with the reimposition of sanctions. Even while Rouhani emphasized that the 60-day period was designed to allow for negotiations between the E3+2 and Iran, it’s unlikely that Tehran will win back the sanctions benefits it was supposed to receive under the original deal. In the meantime, while Iran seeks to make clear that its actions are a reaction to U.S. policy, diplomatic brinkmanship with the remaining parties and, more seriously, violating the deal in ways that increase proliferation concerns will serve to vindicate and empower American hawks, many of whom have been counting on Iran to lash out at the JCPOA over the “maximum pressure” campaign.
Tehran didn’t take the bait and announce a complete withdrawal from the agreement, but expect to see the deal’s critics, including U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seize on Rouhani’s announcement to shore up the narrative that Iran is not to be trusted. For months, U.S. officials have misrepresented the U.S. intelligence community’s view that Iran remained in compliance with the JCPOA. Now the Trump administration will have additional ammunition to claim—with no basis—that Iran’s noncompliance is a sign that Tehran seeks to rapidly lurch toward the bomb. Preserving the verified limits on Iran’s civil nuclear program that the JCPOA conferred was never a priority for this administration; instead, as Pompeo said last year, the source of Iran’s troubles was “the revolutionary nature of the regime itself.”
The most serious concern now is that the 60-day period elapses without any satisfying result to whatever E3+2 and Iran negotiations might occur, and Tehran pushes through enrichment limits and takes steps to reverse the disablement of facilities at Arak. Given a measurable increase in proliferation risks as a result of these actions, the well-known views of influential members of the administration such as Bolton, and rising tensions between the two countries, the odds of a military conflict grow.
A serious crisis with Iran would not require the total demise of the JCPOA. What makes Iran’s decision to voluntarily announce a suspension of its compliance so risky is the cover it might provide to an administration already motivated by regime-change animus to make the case to the American public that Iran is not to be trusted. As far as the administration will be concerned, the “maximum pressure” campaign prosecuted against Iran over the past year worked—not because it was ever meant to bring Iran to the negotiating table to reach a new agreement, but because it got Iran to begin a unilateral move away from compliance with the JCPOA.