Iran’s Recent Nuclear Announcement in the Context of Rising Regional Tensions

On January 5—amidst quickly escalating tensions between the United States and Iran—Tehran announced its latest steps to walk back its commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Q1: What did Iran just announce?

A1: Iran announced on January 5 that it would no longer be bound by limits—imposed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—on the number of centrifuges it can install and operate at its nuclear facilities. In doing so, Iran declared that its nuclear program “no longer faces any operational restrictions” and that future development will depend on Iran’s “technical needs.” This is the latest (and what Iran claimed would be the last) step in a series that Iran has taken since May 2019 to unwind its commitments to the nuclear deal (other key steps include abandoning restrictions on R&D activities, its stockpile of uranium, and its level of enrichment). Iran did not, as some media initially reported, abandon “all” of its commitments under the nuclear deal or withdraw from the agreement altogether.

As of this writing, there are also no indications that Iran is actually fulfilling its threat and adding additional centrifuges—actions that, if taken, would further erode Iran’s breakout timeline, the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough material for a weapon. In its statement, Iran also said it would continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is critical as this provides the international community with insights into Iran’s nuclear activities and provides confidence Iran is not building a nuclear weapon.

Q2: Was this in retaliation for the U.S. killing Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani?

A2: No. The timing of this announcement—part of Iran’s stated intention to wind down its nuclear commitments, taking a new step every 60 days—was known in advance, although the specific details of the announcement were apparently decided at the last minute. Nevertheless, given that this announcement was just days after Soleimani’s death, this naturally presented Iran with an opportunity to “go big”—such as enriching to 20 percent or leaving the deal entirely—if it so desired. Iran’s decision to stick with its approach of incrementalism on the nuclear front suggests it wants to continue to keep nuclear and regional issues siloed. Iran probably understands that the U.S. strike against Soleimani has further strained U.S.-European relations and that provoking a nuclear crisis might quickly bridge those divides (to say nothing of angering Russia and China).

Q3: Is this a big deal?

A3: This marks a further step back by Tehran from its nuclear commitments. However, this announcement is largely consistent with Iran’s pattern to date of choosing bold, headline-grabbing steps but then actually choosing to implement them slowly in practice. For example, Iran announced it would no longer observe limits on its enrichment levels—capped at 3.67 percent under the deal—but since that time has only raised that level to just under 5 percent. This is far short of the roughly 90 percent needed for weapons.

These steps are, collectively, gradually eroding the one-year breakout timeline. But this timeline remains far closer to a year than the two- to three-month breakout window that Iran had prior to the deal.

Q4: Why is Iran doing this? What does it hope to gain?

A4: This latest move is part of Iran’s strategy to gradually dial up the pressure on the United States and its allies. Iran wants to signal that the United States and Europe can’t expect Iran to stand by while the Trump administration seeks to put Iran in a vise. Iran’s objective—as it has stated repeatedly—is to have the United States remove sanctions and return to the deal. If Washington does that, Tehran has offered to bring its nuclear program back into compliance.

Q5: Is the JCPOA dead?

A5: No, but it’s certainly on life support, and its prognosis has declined in the wake of regional escalation. So far, Europe has refrained from triggering the Dispute Resolution Mechanism under the deal—something that it reportedly hinted to Iran it might have to consider in January if Iran continued to walk back from its commitments—which could ultimately lead to the snapback of UN sanctions, effectively killing the deal. A desire not to further escalate tensions with Iran in the wake of the military escalation between Washington and Tehran might lead Europe to hold off on that option, at least for some time. Similarly, if Iran decides not to substantially exceed JCPOA limits—despite its assertion that it has the right to do so—Europe might likewise be inclined to see if the deal can hold out until a potential change in the U.S. administration come 2020.

Q6: What’s likely to happen next?

A6: Although Iran’s announcement was more restrained than many expected, it has left itself plenty of room for maneuvering. By casting aside limits on centrifuge numbers, Tehran has thrown another key requirement out of the window and can now advance its program in ways that potentially further reduce its breakout timeline. The big question is whether it will actually advance the program, and at what pace. The good news is that a straightforward reading of Iran’s recent statement would suggest that reducing IAEA access is—at least for now—off the table.

Recent events suggest Tehran is not backing down but that its steps on the nuclear front will still be measured and calibrated to responses by the United States and remaining JCPOA participants. Iran has further opened the door to nuclear escalation, but it is still only cautiously stepping through for now.

Eric Brewer is deputy director and fellow with the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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