Fordow fuel enrichment plant, Iran, December 2013. (DigitalGlobe via Getty Images/ISIS via Getty Images)

Iran Cries for Attention on the World Stage

In the wake of America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and imposition of crippling sanctions, Iran takes steps to distance itself from the terms of the deal

Early Tuesday morning, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced on television that Iran would begin injecting uranium gas into 1,044 centrifuges at the Islamic Republic’s Fordow nuclear facility. This is Iran’s latest step in pulling away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), originally signed in 2015, since US President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018. The remaining parties to the deal – Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – have struggled to make the nuclear deal worthwhile for the Islamic Republic, as US-imposed sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy.

Dr. Ali Alavi, teaching fellow in the Department of Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, told The Media Line: “Rouhani aims to send a flashier signal to the signatories of the agreement that Iran’s patience is reaching its limits. … The rest of the signatories, particularly the three European states, seem unable or perhaps unenthusiastic to pressurize Washington to return to the agreement.”

Eckart Woertz, director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies and professor of contemporary history and politics of the Middle East at the University of Hamburg, told The Media Line that he agrees with this sentiment, adding: “Iran feels that it is unilaterally applying a multilateral agreement. It deems this unfair as it has failed to achieve measurable economic benefits from the Europeans, as their companies comply with secondary sanctions of the US.”

Prof. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, author of several books about Iran and a colleague of Dr. Alavi’s in London, told The Media Line that Rouhani’s speech was also a result of internal political pressure to compel the European governments to act.

“Rouhani is trying to quell increasingly loud voices in Iran that are urging his government to remind the remaining parties in the JCPOA to follow up on their promises,” Adib-Moghaddam said. “It is a cry for more attention to the promises that were made to Iran.”

However, Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a DC-based think tank, disagrees.

“This step really does little if anything to improve the standing of Rouhani’s allies in the February Majlis elections,” he told The Media Line. “There is no sign Rouhani took this step under pressure from hardliners or [Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei.”

Since May 8 of last year, when the US withdrew from the JCPOA, Iran has violated aspects of the agreement. It raised the level of enrichment of the uranium it was processing from 3.67% as permitted by the deal up to 4.5%. The Islamic Republic also exceeded the JCPOA-permitted stockpile of 661 pounds of low-enriched uranium by an additional 441 pounds, accumulating a total of a little over 1,100 pounds. In addition, Iran broke the terms of the deal by operating more sophisticated centrifuges than allowed and lastly, it reduced access for foreign inspectors to examine its nuclear facilities.

Alavi contends that it is crucial that Iran has reduced its compliance to the terms of the deal in stages.

“This means that Iran has left room for diplomacy and Tehran is willing to comply with the agreement if all other signatories are primed to rescue the deal,” he said, referring to the US.

Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California with expertise on Iran’s political development and nuclear program, told The Media Line that he believes Iran’s latest move is more significant than the previous times it broke the agreement. “The announcement represents a significant step by Iran in distancing itself from the agreement. … Iran decided to put ‘maximum pressure’ on the EU by gradually distancing itself from the JCPOA.”

However, Clawson contends that Iran’s move might not be that much more significant than its past transgressions. “Like the earlier violations, it sounds worse than it is; that is, it allows Iran to develop better centrifuge technologies with which Iran could more quickly ‘break out’ toward a bomb but this step does not in itself do much to change the breakout time,” he said.

The prospect of the US sitting down to negotiate seems unlikely with the current administration. When The Media Line asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson responded in a written statement: “Iran should follow the calls of the international community and return to the negotiating table. Until that time, Iran will face the consequences of even deeper and broader sanctions.”

As a result, the remaining JCPOA parties and the EU feel an increased obligation to find a path around sanctions to improve the economic situation in Iran enough so that Iran does not continue to break the deal. Thus, the prospect of a nuclear Iran remains on their shoulders.

“At some stage, this policy of sanctions and obliviousness to Iranian demands may push the country to the edge and make it inevitable that the Iranian leadership considers pushing the nuclear program further to a threshold capability,” Adib-Moghaddam told The Media Line.

USC’s Sahimi contends that geographic conditions in Fordow would make it difficult for the international community to destroy. “Rouhani hopes that it will be the ultimate motivation for the EU to save the JCPOA by buying Iran’s oil and breaking the sanctions against Iran.”

However, Dr. Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow at the London-based Chatham House Royal Institute of International Affairs, believes it is unclear whether Iran’s latest move is enough to be a tipping point for the EU.

“[It’s] hard to say if this is a tipping point because Iran is being careful and selective in the areas where it is choosing to breach. Selecting Fordow is significant … [but] at the same time, Tehran continues to reinforce that all its breaches are reversible,” she told The Media Line.

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