Tehran is still very much a party to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, but Friday’s targeted killing of Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani by the US has experts parsing Iranian ambitions
As Iranians mourn the death of Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force and responsible for overseeing the country’s proxy wars, Tehran’s nuclear ambitions remain alive and well.
Mere days after the targeted killing by the US at Baghdad’s airport, Iran announced on January 5 that it would no longer abide by the uranium enrichment restrictions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Tehran signed the 2015 deal with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union. The US withdrew from the deal in 2018, calling it insufficiently strict, reinstituting sanctions that have since devastated Iran’s fiscal health.
In response to Tehran’s announcement, the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom and France – known as the E3 countries, all of which have been trying to salvage the accord with a bartering system meant to circumvent some of the US sanctions – issued a joint statement on January 6.
“We specifically call on Iran to refrain from further violent action or proliferation, and urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with the JCPOA,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emanuel Macron said in the statement.
Eckart Woertz, director of the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies and professor of contemporary history and politics of the Middle East at the University of Hamburg, told The Media Line that Europe’s ability to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions was limited.
“Europe is in a rather weak position,” he stated. “They will urge Iran to go back to the JCPOA, but at the same time they cannot offer Iran sanctions relief.”
Dr. Seyed Ali Alavi, a senior teaching fellow in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, agrees.
“The JCPOA practically metamorphosed into a non-functional covenant since President Trump unilaterally withdrew,” he told The Media Line.
Yet Mehdi Beyad, a PhD candidate at SOAS studying Gulf countries and their international relations, argues that Europe is over-reliant on the US to provide economic incentives, something that threatens JCPOA’s viability.
“Until now, the Europeans have not been willing to take risks and as such have demonstrated a functional inability to act independently of US pressures, let alone compensate for them. It is imperative that Europe does more,” he told The Media Line.
“The latest E3 statement was very unhelpful in this regard, and there is a serious risk of alienating Iran further by overlooking the US’s role and placing all obligations on Iran,” he said.
Beyad further contends that Soleimani’s assassination will increase the likelihood of the accord’s complete breakdown.
“There is an increasing risk that the JCPOA may totally collapse, with Iran feeling more cornered after the killing of Soleimani and the Europeans failing [to develop a bartering mechanism],” he stated.
Iran has been taking steps since the summer to move away from the limits imposed by the accord, using them as a way of protesting against the US sanctions. It already raised its level of uranium enrichment and the size of its stockpile, and began using centrifuges forbidden under JCPOA.
Some experts contend that despite Iran’s announcement of further rollbacks, it is unlikely that the Islamic Republic will leave the agreement entirely.
Tehran, they point out, will still permit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct inspections. The IAEA has yet to publicly respond on the matter, but the organization told Reuters in a statement: “IAEA inspectors continue to carry out verification and monitoring activities in the country.”
Says Alavi: “It is vital to notice that Iran explicitly announced that it still complies with the [directives of the] IAEA and is committed to the UN.”
Jacopo Scita, an Al Sabah doctoral fellow at Durham University in the United Kingdom, told The Media Line he expected Iran to remain a party to the accord, at least in the immediate future, in order to minimize the chances that the international community further marginalizes the country.
He believes that Iran is taking reversible steps with the hope that sanctions are lifted.
“In the [January 5] announcement, Iran focused on the reinstallation of centrifuges, and not on moving to 20% enrichment, as [had been] expected by many analysts,” Scita said.
“While the latter [approach] would have decreased the breakout timeline [to a nuclear weapon] quite substantially, the actual step taken… appears to be calibrated to leave space for potential negotiations and stay enough away from the point of no return,” he explained.
He believes that this “gives the international community reliable insights into the state of Tehran’s nuclear program.”
Beyad concurs, adding: “Iran is unlikely to make any drastic movements in terms of its nuclear policy. It will likely continue to be strategic and gradual.”
Yet Dr. Raz Zimmt, an Iran specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, says that some of the steps Iran has taken, such as research and development on more advanced centrifuges, are not truly reversible.
“Even if Iran takes steps to reduce its nuclear program [in the future], it would be possible to go back to the exact same stage because they already made technological progress,” he noted.
Iran is currently enriching uranium to around 5%, well below the approximately 90% level needed for a nuclear weapon.
Sina Azodi, a foreign policy adviser at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based consultancy group, argues that Iran’s statement is noteworthy even though it remains somewhat compliant with the deal.
“I think it is a pretty significant decision,” Azodi told The Media Line. “However, I must emphasize that this doesn’t mean Iran has left the JCPOA; rather, it has gone with pre-scheduled plans to reduce its commitments because it is not satisfied with [the] EU’s attempts to somehow makeup for US sanctions….”
As such, the announcement might not have been linked to Soleimani’s death at all, because Tehran had previously warned that it was about to take an additional step away from the accord.
“We don’t [have access to information on] what Iran intended to do…,” Zimmt said. “I can’t rule out that they will go further… but we just don’t know.”
Some analysts believe that a nuclear Iran is not the chief worry when it comes to the Islamic Republic.
“The Gulf countries will be much more concerned about recent events and escalating tensions than they will about developments regarding JCPOA,” Beyad said. “Until there is a final collapse [of the deal], there is no sense of immediate alarm.”
Zimmt contends that the same goes for Israel – at least for now.
“Iran is far away from a nuclear capability,” he noted. “According to most assessments, despite steps [Tehran] has taken to withdraw its commitment to JCPOA, it is still at least 6-10 months away from breakout capability. At this stage, I don’t think Israel is considering a military option.”