Iran faces unrest at home, risks new sanctions after nuclear breaches
LONDON - Iran’s declared violations of the 2015 nuclear deal elicited angry reactions in Europe and the Gulf region. Europe’s mounting hostility comes at a time when US sanctions forced Iran to impose fuel rationing triggering widespread protests.
The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran resumed enriching uranium in its underground Fordow plant and was accelerating enrichment with advanced centrifuges also banned by the nuclear agreement.
The move, strongly denounced by Washington, alarmed European powers that had previously dismissed Tehran’s breaches, such as exceeding the cap on stockpiles of enriched uranium and on the fissile purity of enrichment, as insignificant and reversible.
Britain, France and Germany raised the possibility of restoring international sanctions after a meeting of foreign ministers in Paris, saying they were ready “to consider all mechanisms… including the dispute resolution mechanism.”
Europe’s threat to trigger a mechanism that could reimpose UN sanctions on Iran marked a significant breakdown in diplomatic attempts to save the nuclear deal under which Iran curtailed uranium enrichment in return for relief from economic sanctions, diplomats said.
Under the terms of the 2015 deal, any party can refer suspect agreement breeches to a commission that includes Iran, Russia, China, the three European powers and the European Union.
If the matter cannot be resolved at the commission level, the UN Security Council would be notified, establishing a 30-day deadline for a resolution on continuing Iran’s sanctions relief. If no resolution is adopted, sanctions in place under previous UN resolutions would be reimposed — known as a “snapback.”
“We don’t want to pull out of the (deal) too soon but equally we cannot sit back. The Russians and the Chinese are not going to trigger this, but us, as Europeans, will have to take a stance at some point,” a European diplomat told Reuters news agency.
“It is not if but when, unless Iran pulls back, but even then, they are gaining (nuclear) knowledge by spinning these centrifuges, so we have to react.”
Enrichment is the pathway towards producing fuel for a nuclear weapon. Iran has refined material to a fissile purity of 4.5%, considered suitable for electricity generation but far below the bomb-grade threshold of 90%.
European and US displeasure was exacerbated by the detention of an IAEA inspector at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility in October, contrary to stipulations in the agreement that Iran must grant daily access to the site as requested.
EU diplomats said the Europeans are unlikely to trigger the snap-back mechanism before January when Iran is expected to announce other steps away from the deal.
“What we’re now seeing is the dismantling of the JCPOA,” said a European diplomat, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the agreement is formally known.
“We haven’t decided on launching the mechanism because we need to be sure of how it will help us in trying to defuse tensions. The question we’re asking is when, how and whether it benefits us to do it?”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran had itself initiated the complaint mechanism and was ceasing to heed its commitments because the Europeans failed to protect it from US sanctions.
The nuclear deal’s objective was to extend time Iran would need to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, a period referred to as “breakout time” to about a year from two or three months.
“We’re now entering a phase where Iran’s actions have a serious impact on the breakout time,” another EU diplomat told Reuters, adding that the window to bring Iran and the United States to the negotiating table was very small.
Iran’s move clashed with attempts at de-escalation of tensions in the Gulf region. The Saudi cabinet has condemned what it called Iran’s “deception” over its nuclear programme, after Tehran’s decision to restart atomic activities at one of its key sites.
The cabinet expressed its “denunciation of Iran’s continued deception and delays in providing the required information on its nuclear programme to the IAEA,” the official Saudi Press Agency said.
Iran accused other countries of hypocrisy in criticising Tehran while failing to fulfil their commitments of relief from US sanctions, which are taking their toll on Iran’s economy.
Petrol rationing and price hikes, introduced November 15, triggered demonstrations across Iran. The official Iranian news agency IRNA reported demonstrations the night of November 15 were “severe” in Sirjan in central Iran where “people attacked a fuel storage warehouse in the city and tried to set fire to it.”
Protests were reported in many cities, including Mashhad, Birjand, Ahvaz, Gachsaran, Abadan, Khoramshahr, Mahshahr, Shiraz and Bandar Abbas.
Iranian state television said the price of a litre of regular petrol had been increased to 15,000 rials (12.7 US cents) from 10,000 rials and the monthly ration for each private car was 60 litres per month. Additional purchases would cost 30,000 rials per litre.
Despite its huge energy reserves, Iran has struggled to meet its domestic fuel needs because of a lack of refining capacity and international sanctions that limited the supply of parts for plant maintenance.
The “maximum pressure” strategy set by US President Donald Trump against Iran last year included severe sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, among many other sectors. Tehran’s decision came following months of speculations about possible rationing after the United States in 2018 reimposed sanctions that sent Iran’s economy into free fall.
The price hike risks stoking social unrest among Iranians who often protest higher prices and declining standards of living.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani said recently that Iran is facing its “most difficult” time in decades.