A year to the day since Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran announced that it will restart enriching high-level uranium if other world powers don’t fulfill their promises under the 2015 pact.
In a speech broadcast on state television on Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani warned that the remaining signatories to the deal — France, Germany, Russia, China, and the U.K. — must keep their commitments to protect Tehran’s oil and banking sectors from U.S sanctions. If they don’t, he said, Iran will return to stockpiling surplus enriched uranium, and restart higher production of enriched uranium.
Since pulling out of the nuclear pact last May, the Trump administration has applied what it calls a “maximum pressure” style campaign against Tehran, which has included crippling economic sanctions.
Now, Tehran says it is ready to stop complying with the terms of the agreement completely if the pact’s other signatories don’t act to prevent further economic pain.
What did Rouhani say?
Rouhani claimed Iran was not technically pulling out of the nuclear pact.
"We do not want to leave the agreement. All the people of the world should know that today is not the end of the JCPOA,” he said, using the acronym for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, “it is a new step within the framework of the JCPOA.".
Rouhani announced he was suspending two parts of the deal with which Iran had been complying: the sale of surplus enriched uranium and heavy water.
Under the deal, Iran is required to sell any surplus enriched uranium, a by-product of Iran's civilian nuclear power generation. Now, Rouhani is threatening to keep the material, which can be used to build nuclear weapons. He said Iran would resume sales if the remaining signatories met their financial and oil commitments under the deal within 60 days.
Rouhani also said Tehran would begin developing the Arak heavy water reactor; heavy water is also used in the production of nuclear material.
What has the U.S. said?
Rouhani’s announcement comes at a time of growing tensions between Tehran and Washington, with National Security Adviser John Bolton announcing on Tuesday that the U.S. would deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and an Air Force bomber task force to the Persian Gulf.
U.S. officials said the carrier group had been on the way to the Gulf for a month, but claimed it was responding to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” based on “specific and credible” intelligence about a heightened threat from Iran.
The intelligence indicated` Iran had drafted plans to use proxies to strike U.S. forces stationed off the coast of Yemen and in Iraq, according to sources speaking to the Wall Street Journal. But some U.S. officials said the Trump administration was making more of the threat than necessary.
“It’s not that the administration is mischaracterizing the intelligence, so much as overreacting to it,” one U.S. government official briefed on the intel told the Daily Beast.
The tension ratcheted up further on Tuesday, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled a planned meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to make a four-hour visit to Baghdad.
During the trip, which was shrouded in secrecy, Pompeo briefed Iraq’s President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on intelligence related to increased threats from Iran, and asked Baghdad to protect U.S. troops stationed there.
“We wanted to let them know about the increased threat stream that we had seen and give them a little bit more background on that so they could ensure that they were doing all they could to provide protection for our team,” Pompeo told reporters.
Why is this happening?
Iran’s economy has suffered hugely in the year since the U.S. pulled out of the deal and imposed sanctions against Tehran. The country’s currency has been pushed to historic lows, inflation has soared, and foreign investment has dried up.
And in recent weeks, the White House has ratcheted up its “maximum pressure” campaign, cutting off all Iranian oil exports by ending sanctions waivers for five of Iran’s remaining oil customers: China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey.
Some experts have suggested that the Trump administration’s campaign against Iran — led primarily by Bolton — has inflamed tensions and could lead to a military conflict in the region.
“We have been warning that Bolton's appointment would lead to war,” Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonproliferation organization in Washington, tweeted Tuesday. “He has uncontested control of the national security apparatus and a history of cherry-picking intel and exaggerating threats. He is completely capable of goading Iran into war. We need the press to be on alert.”
What happens now?
Rouhani’s announcement could lead to further sanctions by countries that remain in the deal: France, Germany, Russia, China, and the U.K.
On Wednesday morning, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said that European powers would do everything to keep the deal alive, but admitted there would be consequences to Tehran’s actions and possibly sanctions if Iran flouts the deal.
China, a key Iran ally, has called on both sides to show restraint but said Wednesday that Washington had “further aggravated” tensions over the nuclear issue by deploying its carrier to the region.
But Iran’s regional enemies are already voicing alarm about Rouhani’s threat to increase the production of nuclear material and the possible adverse impact that could have on the security of the Middle East.
"This morning I heard that Iran intends to continue its nuclear programme," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday. “We shall not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.”
Cover: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the inauguration ceremony of four projects at the South Pars gas field on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf, in Asaluyeh, Iran, Sunday, March 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)