Increasing Pressure on Europe to Salvage Nuclear Deal, Iran Announces Plans to Exceed Uranium Enrichment Cap

Iran's Atomic Energy Organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi and government spokesman Ali Rabiei gave a joint press conference at the presidential headquarters in the capital Tehran on July 7, 2019. (Photo: Iranian Presidency/AFP/Getty Images)

Increasing Pressure on Europe to Salvage Nuclear Deal, Iran Announces Plans to Exceed Uranium Enrichment Cap

The Iranian foreign minister accused the Trump administration of "economic terrorism" and emphasized that his nation's new "remedial steps" are "reversible."

Iran increased pressure on European leaders to provide relief from crippling economic sanctions and salvage the 2015 nuclear deal with an announcement Sunday that the Middle Eastern country is set to exceed the pact's uranium enrichment cap.

"This is not a sprint to a bomb... This is a message, not a threat."
--Mary Kaszynski, Ploughshares Fund

The landmark nuclear agreement, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was initially signed by Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia. Since President Donald Trump violated the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions last year--eliciting global condemnation and warnings that his administration is paving a path to war--European and Iranian diplomats have been working to save the deal.

At a news conference on Sunday, Iranian officials announced the enrichment plans and said the country would continue to reduce its commitments under the JCPOA every 60 days unless the deal's European signatories provide relief from Trump's sanctions.

The Associated Pressreported Sunday:

Under the nuclear deal, the cap for enrichment was set at 3.67 percent, a percentage closely monitored by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.

"Within hours, the technical tasks will be done and enrichment above 3.67 percent will begin," Iran nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said. "We predict that the IAEA measurements early tomorrow morning will show that we have gone beyond 3.67 percent."

The IAEA said it was aware of Iran's comments and "inspectors in Iran will report to our headquarters as soon as they verify the announced development."

Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister for Iran, reportedly said that discussions are ongoing with European signatories--with ministerial-level talks planned for later this month--and that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter to E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini detailing the steps his country has taken.

Zarif--a strong proponent of deescalating U.S.-Iran tensions who played a key role in finalizing the 2015 pact--publicly addressed the enrichment decision in a pair of tweets. The foreign minister accused the Trump administration of "economic terrorism" and emphasized that the latest "remedial steps" are "reversible" if the European signatories uphold their commitments under the deal.

Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the American think tank the Quincy Institute, toldAl Jazeera on Sunday that Europe has so far "shown too little creativity and too little backbone" in the joint effort so save the agreement.

"It has been far more focused on adhering to Trump's sanctions--even though it opposes them--than on adhering to its obligations under the JCPOA. That's not a formula that will ensure the survival of the JCPOA," Parsi warned. "At this point, unless Europe returns to trading with Iran at pre-sanctions levels, it is difficult to see how the JCPOA can be kept alive."

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Reuters that with its announcement Sunday, "the Iranian government is trying to create a crisis that will force a multilateral negotiation without precipitating a war."

Iran's leaders have maintained for years that the country does not seek nuclear weapons. Detailing the nuclear material restrictions imposed on Iran by the JCPOA, Reutersexplained:

The biggest obstacle to producing nuclear weapons is obtaining enough fissile material--weapons-grade highly enriched uranium or plutonium--for the bomb's core

The deal caps the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for centrifuges, at 3.67 percent, far below the 90 percent of weapons grade. It is also well below the 20 percent level to which Iran enriched uranium before the deal. The 3.67 percent cap lasts 15 years.

NBC Newsnoted that "the deal also restricted Iran from holding a stockpile of more than 300 kilograms of low enriched uranium. Iran announced on Monday, and the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed, that it has exceeded the limit on the stockpile."

As Iran has taken recent steps to reduce its compliance with the deal to pressure European diplomats, some Western officials, political commentators, and corporate media outlets have framed the moves as Iran "dashing toward a bomb."

In a piece published earlier this week by The Lobe Log, Win Without War communications director Ben Armbruster challenged that narrative, which he described as "reminiscent of how the mainstream U.S. media handled the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq."

The truth is that Donald Trump, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are responsible for the current crisis with Iran. They established a policy of confrontation, trashed the nuclear agreement (which is so far working to block Iran from building a bomb), and created the conditions that make another catastrophic war in the Middle East more likely. The U.S. media has to do better at holding them to account. The stakes are too high.

Following Iran's Sunday announcement, Mary Kaszynski--deputy director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, a non-profit that supports the nuclear deal--toldNBC News: "This is not a sprint to a bomb... This is a message, not a threat."

Arms Control Association's Daryl Kimball concurred in an interview with C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" program early Sunday. "They are trying to create political leverage to get the Europeans, the Chinese, the Russians--the other parties to the nuclear deal--to do more to help overcome the effects of the U.S. sanctions, which are preventing Iran from selling oil [and] engaging in financial transactions," he said. "It's our assessment that this is not an Iranian effort to race for the bomb. This is an effort to create political leverage."

The U.K., German, and French governments responded Sunday by calling on Iran to reverse its recent moves. According to the AP:

On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron told his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in a phone call that he is trying to find a way by July 15 to resume the dialogue between Iran and Western partners. It wasn't clear if July 15 carried any importance. The U.S. has called for a special IAEA meeting for Wednesday to discuss Iran.

Responding to the enrichment announcement on Twitter Sunday, Pompeo perpetuated the narrative that Iran seeks nuclear weaponry. "Iran's latest expansion of its nuclear program will lead to further isolation and sanctions," he wrote. "Nations should restore the longstanding standard of no enrichment for Iran's nuclear program. Iran's regime, armed with nuclear weapons, would pose an even greater danger to the world."

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