Iran is set to breach the 2015 nuclear deal for a second time in as many weeks as it ramps up its demands for sanctions relief.
The country broke a key limit set by the nuclear deal for the first time days ago, stockpiling more low-enriched uranium than it is allowed to. Now, Tehran is vowing to follow through Sunday on its threat to increase the level of enrichment of its uranium — a more serious breach that some experts say will bring Iran closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The moves are adding volatility to an already precarious situation in the Middle East, where U.S.-Iran tensions remain at a fever pitch.
Here are five things to know about Iran’s breaches of the nuclear deal.
What Iran already did
On Monday, Iranian state media announced the country had exceeded the limit on low-enriched uranium it is allowed to stockpile.
Under the 2015 nuclear accord, sometimes referred to by the acronym of its official name, JCPOA, Iran was allowed to keep no more than 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. The deal was negotiated by the Obama administration and co-signed by England, Germany, France, China and Russia. President Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018.
The international organization that monitors Iran’s compliance with the deal, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed later Monday that Iran had broken the stockpile limit.
The news was not unexpected. Iran announced in May it was quadrupling its uranium production capacity and announced in mid-June it would exceed the stockpile limit by the end of the month.
Arms control advocates have also said that while any breach of the deal is concerning, exceeding the limit on the amount of low-enriched uranium does not pose an immediate proliferation threat, with Iran still estimated to be a year away from being able to have a nuclear weapon.
Still, it was the first time Iran had broken a key limit of the nuclear deal, marking an escalation in a risky gambit for sanctions relief.
What Iran plans to do next
When Iran announced it would exceed the limits of the nuclear deal, it gave the remaining signatories a July 7 deadline before it would take the more significant step of increasing uranium enrichment levels.
That deadline is Sunday, and as of Wednesday, Iran is vowing to follow through.
“On July 7, the level of enrichment in Iran will not be 3.67 percent anymore, as we will abandon such commitment and increase it to any amount that we require and need,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said at a Cabinet meeting, according to Iran’s semiofficial Tasnim news agency.
The nuclear deal bars Iran from enriching uranium above 3.67 percent, which is enough for a power plant but far from what’s needed for a weapon.
Iran has previously said it needs 5 percent enrichment for its nuclear power plant in Bushehr and 20 percent enrichment for a Tehran research reactor.
Twenty percent is still under weapons-grade. But once it reaches that level, it takes much less time to enrich to 90 percent, which is considered weapons-grade.
The means the so-called breakout time for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon would get shorter than the current estimate of a year. As such, arms control experts have said Iran following through on this threat is far more provocative and poses a greater proliferation risk than the first breach.
Europe is the main audience
Despite skyrocketing tensions between the U.S. and Iran under Trump, the main audience for Tehran’s nuclear moves right now is Europe.
Because the United States withdrew from the deal and reimposed strict sanctions — prompting a slew of businesses to back out of Iran — Tehran says it is not getting the benefits from the deal it was promised and is demanding Europe make up the difference.
The European Union has been trying to set up a mechanism to allow its businesses to continue trading with Iran without facing U.S. sanctions. Following last-minute talks with Iran last week, the EU announced that the mechanism, known as INSTEX, was operational.
But Iran says that is insufficient because it doesn’t meet its main demand — that it be allowed to sell oil at the level it was before Trump withdrew from the deal.
Following Iran’s announcement on its uranium stockpile, Europe said it is “urgently” weighing its options.
“We have been consistent and clear that our commitment to the nuclear deal depends on full compliance by Iran,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a joint statement Tuesday.
“We urge Iran to reverse this step and to refrain from further measures that undermine the nuclear deal,” they added. “We are urgently considering next steps under the terms of the JCPOA in close coordination with other JCPOA participants.”
Iran says it’s not violating the deal
Despite going over one limit and threatening to go over another, Iran maintains that it is not in violation of the nuclear deal.
Tehran’s argument hinges on Section 36 of the deal. That section lays out a process by which one side can lodge official complaints that the other side is not living up to its end of the deal.
If, after going through the process, the issue is still not resolved, the complainant “could treat the unresolved issue as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part,” according to the text of the deal.
In a tweet Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif argued his country took action only after going through that process.
“As soon as E3 abide by their obligations, we'll reverse,” he tweeted, referring to England, Germany and France.
“Iran is committed to the full implementation of the #JCPOA: as long as E3/EU implement THEIR economic commitments,” he added in another tweet Tuesday. “So moving forward, Iran will comply with its commitments under the JCPOA in exactly the same manner as the EU/E3 have—and will—comply with theirs. Fair enough?”
Trump team is standing firm
The Trump administration is pointing to Iran’s breach of the nuclear deal’s limits to bolster its argument that the agreement was flawed from the start.
Iran, administration officials and other allies argue, never should have been allowed to enrich any uranium to any level and is now using its nuclear program to “blackmail” the international community.
“The Trump administration calls on the international community to restore the longstanding nonproliferation standard of no enrichment for Iran’s nuclear program,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Monday.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham confusingly argued that “there is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms.”
Supporters of the deal insist a total prohibition on Iran enriching uranium is an unrealistic demand Iran will never agree to.
With Iran escalating its breaches step by step, the faceoff with the United States that brought Trump to the brink of a military strike against Iran shows no signs of abating.
Grisham's and Pompeo’s statements both pledged the administration’s maximum pressure campaign would continue until Iran changes course.
Trump himself reacted to the news of Iran going over its stockpile limit by saying that Iran was “playing with fire.”
Trump is also hearing from Iran hawks in Congress to further ramp up pressure.
In a letter released Wednesday, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) urged Trump to rescind waivers allowing civil-nuclear cooperation and to invoke snapback sanctions at the United Nations.
"Regime officials have signaled they intend to creep towards a nuclear weapon, while demanding concessions and promising to 'reverse' their violations if their demands are met," the trio wrote. "We urge you to reject their nuclear blackmail."
On Wednesday, Trump warned Iran that its uranium enrichment threat could "come back to bite you."
"Iran has just issued a New Warning," Trump tweeted. "Rouhani says that they will Enrich Uranium to 'any amount we want' if there is no new Nuclear Deal. Be careful with the threats, Iran. They can come back to bite you like nobody has been bitten before!"