Iran steps away from nuclear deal but stops short of full exit

The timetable for November’s US presidential election may affect Tehran’s decisions over how quickly to expand its nuclear programme.
Sunday 12/01/2020

Such was the furore following the killing of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani that Tehran’s announcement of renewed nuclear steps attracted scant attention.

Yet it was US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal that began the crisis and it was Trump who rejected the deal’s separation of Iran’s nuclear activities from its missile programme and regional role.

“In the world of politics, all developments are interconnected,” said Abbas Mousavi, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, appearing as bemused as the journalist who had asked whether Soleimani’s death would prompt Iran to step further away from its 2015 deal with world powers, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Despite the complications, the nuclear issue has a specific logic. The United States and European negotiators aimed in 2015 for the JCPOA to stretch to a year Iran’s “break-out time,” the period between Tehran abandoning constraints and producing a nuclear weapon. They said a year would give time for countermeasures, including potential military strikes.

Hence, under the deal, Iran reduced its IR-1 (basic) centrifuges, uranium-enrichment devices, from 19,000 to 5,000 and agreed to limit enrichment to 3.7%, well short of the 20% reached before the treaty and which was operationally far closer to the 90% needed for a bomb.

Iran announced last May that it would take rolling steps breaching JCPOA limits. It set a series of ultimatums designed to pressure Europe to mitigate punitive US sanctions, introduced and subsequently tightened after Trump abandoned the JCPOA.

First, Tehran increased its stocks of enriched uranium to more than 300 kilograms. Second, it enriched beyond 3.7% to around 5%. Third, it assembled 20 IR-4 and 20 IR-6 centrifuges (more advanced than the IR-1). Fourth, in November, it resumed work with centrifuges at the fortified Fordow facility.

The latest step is a rejection of any limits on enrichment levels and the number or type of centrifuges. Iran’s programme would proceed, said the government statement, “solely based on technical needs.”

This was not, as some had expected, an out-and-out rejection of the JCPOA. Iran said cooperation would continue with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which undertakes inspections under the terms of the JCPOA and an additional protocol agreed by Iran as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran also said that, if US sanctions were lifted as agreed under the JCPOA, it was “ready to return to its commitments” limiting the nuclear programme.

“Iran’s statement is carefully worded,” said Richard Dalton, former British ambassador in Tehran. “Crucially, Iran would still be subject to IAEA accounting [inspections and regular reports] and it has not said what its operational requirements for enriched uranium will be… They have no known urgent need for either low-enriched [under 5%] or 20% enriched material.”

Other analysts are less sanguine. “By my count, installing another 4,000 or so IR-1 centrifuges would allow them to go back to pre-JCPOA monthly enriched uranium production levels of more than 200 kilograms,” said Elana DeLozier, a Washington Institute research fellow specialised in nuclear proliferation and Gulf politics.

“With the advanced centrifuges operating, they could possibly go higher. Another decision they could take is to enrich to 19.75% again. Or they could stop complying with certain IAEA inspections, subsidiary arrangements or leave the additional protocol.”

What Iran does may depend on steps taken by Europe, Russia and China, all working diplomatic channels. An emergency meeting of European foreign ministers January 10 called on Iran to return to JCPOA limits but did not discuss activating the agreement’s disputes procedure, a step that had been widely mooted.

Dalton played down talk of new EU sanctions, perhaps resulting from Europe activating the disputes procedure. “The EU hasn’t reached the end of the JCPOA, although it may do if it moves to the dispute-resolution procedure against Iran alone [and not also against the United States],” he said. “Iran would see this as punishment and too one-sided to be credible.”

DeLozier highlighted the next IAEA report, due in February. “We’ll know more then,” she said. “The dispute resolution timeline is only 15-30 days, so if the Europeans trigger it, it may force a [European] decision to officially pull out of the JCPOA or trigger a UNSC [UN Security Council] vote. Perhaps Iran and the EU prefer to drag this out until the US elections hoping for a pro-JCPOA president but how they will do so remains unclear, especially given the tensions post-Soleimani.”

The timetable for November’s US presidential election — with Trump seeking a second 4-year term — may affect Tehran’s decisions over how quickly to expand its nuclear programme, and so, in turn, any calculations over “break out.”

Richard Johnson, former coordinator on the Iran nuclear issue in the US State Department, suggested on US public radio that Iran’s latest steps mean “the timeline has probably shrunk down to maybe 9, 10 or 11 months.”