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Iranian Nuclear Deal On Life Support After Tehran Decides To Ignore Restrictions

A Shahab-3 surface-to-surface missile, which is said to be capable of delivering a long-range nuclear warhead, is displayed next to a portrait of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a street exhibition in Tehran earlier this year.

Iran's announcement that it will not abide by the limits put on its nuclear program under a historic 2015 deal with six world powers has put the landmark accord on the verge of collapse.

But many analysts argue that Tehran's decision on January 5 to virtually exit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) still provides a chance to salvage the wounded deal, which many argue has been on life support since the United States exited it in May 2018.

Iran's announcement increases the threat posed by the country's nuclear program, Kelsey Davenport, director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, told RFE/RL.

But she added there was still a narrow window in which to preserve the deal under which Tehran agreed to curb its controversial nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

"Announcing an end to adherence with the limits imposed by the Iran deal is not the same as restarting prohibited activities," Davenport told RFE/RL.

"Withdrawing from [limited] enrichment levels is ominous but leaves to the future what exactly they will do," said Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow at the Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "This keeps alive hopes for a negotiated outcome that preserves the JCPOA."
Tehran's decision to pull further back from the JCPOA came on the heels of the January 3 assassination of top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike.

Iran's announcement -- the latest in a series of withdrawals from the agreement in recent months, has also increased tensions with the European signatories to the accord: Germany, France, Britain, and the European Union, which have put great effort into trying to keep the nuclear accord afloat.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on January 6 that Tehran's announcement "could be the first step to the end of this agreement."

"What Iran has announced is no longer in accordance with the agreement, so we will sit down today with France and Britain to decide on that -- how we respond to that this week," he added.

Room To Maneuver

An official January 5 statement by Iran said it will no longer observe limits on the level of enrichment, the amount of stockpiled enriched uranium, or research and development in its nuclear activities.

"From here on, Iran's nuclear program will be developed solely based on its technical needs," the statement said without elaborating.

But Iran's pronouncement said Tehran's cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been monitoring the country's nuclear activities and sites, will continue as before.

Fitzpatrick, said Tehran's actions are "more measured" than he expected.

"Iran did not say it would raise the enrichment level to 20 percent, they didn't announce anything regarding the plutonium path to a bomb, and they didn't say they are pulling out of the deal," he said. "Most importantly, Iran left in place the IAEA inspections."

Davenport said that, by not stating specifically what steps it will take, Iran has left itself considerable room to maneuver.

"If Iran wants to quickly cut into the breakout time [the time needed to amass enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon], it could do so by rapidly reinstalling centrifuges and enriching uranium to higher levels," she said. "Alternatively, Iran could gradually chip away at the breakout time by slowly increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium."

Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told RFE/RL that nuclear inspections are "an absolute redline even for" Russia and China, which are the other two signatories to the 2015 agreement.

"Once Iran reduces the IAEA's access [to its nuclear operations], it would signal its preparedness to abandon the JCPOA and even the [Treaty On the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons] altogether," he said.

Dispute Mechanism

If Tehran decides to boost its production of enriched uranium, which could reduce the breakout time, European countries could initiate a dispute mechanism within the deal, which could result in the imposition of UN sanctions within 65 days.

"At a minimum, this should provide Europe with one last opportunity to try to save the deal by providing Iran with some economic reprieve," Vaez told RFE/RL.

Iran has since May 2019 announced gradual reductions in its compliance with the deal in a move aimed at pressuring EU countries to help it bypass crippling U.S. sanctions, including an oil embargo, that has deprived the country of its main source of income.

Tehran said on January 5 that if the sanctions are lifted -- something the Trump administration shows no signs of doing -- and Iran benefited from the deal economically, the country is ready to return to its commitment under the nuclear deal.

On January 6, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he "deeply" regretted Iran's announcement.

"As ever we will rely on @iaeaorg verification. Full implementation of #NuclearDeal by all is now more important than ever, for regional stability & global security. I will continue working with all participants on [a] way forward," Borrell said on Twitter on January 6.

Borrell's spokesman, Peter Stano, told reporters that the EU foreign policy chief was engaged in contacts with all the relevant partners to find a way toward a "de-escalation."

"Escalation is something no one can afford and it is in no one's interest because escalation leads only to more violence, to more tension, and -- in the end -- to more suffering for the wider region and for the people in this region."

Stano added that Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Brussels to continue talks on the issue.

"It is up to the Iranian side to take up the invitation and proceed," he said.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.