By Natasha Phillips
July 5 – Iran has increased its stockpiles of enriched low-grade uranium to more than 300 kilograms, the maximum amount set under the 2015 nuclear agreement. While the move has reignited global concern that a military conflict between Iran and the U.S. could be imminent, analysts say the motivation behind the boost is to pressure Washington into rejoining the nuclear deal.
As part of its Maximum Pressure Campaign against Iran, the Trump administration pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Iran had previously threatened to boost its production of enriched uranium, and pushed for the development of a special purpose vehicle designed to ease trade between Iran and European nation states in response to the campaign.
Despite increased tensions, Tehran’s political maneuvers abroad are not rooted in a desire to start a war, said Dr. Nicholas Miller, a Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, specializing in international security and arms control.
“Iran is seeking bargaining leverage in response to U.S. sanctions,” Dr. Miller told Kayhan Life in an interview (see excerpts below). “Its leaders are sending a message to the United States and Europe that if they don’t provide economic benefits as promised in the nuclear deal, Iran will begin walking away from some of its commitments as well.”
“This is not a rush toward a bomb, it is a political signal,” he added.
Dr. Miller noted that he didn’t think the U.S.’s Maximum Pressure Campaign was working, and that it was in fact achieving the opposite of what the administration was looking for.
European powers have expressed concern over Iran’s decision to increase its uranium stockpile, but have held back from triggering a dispute mechanism available under the nuclear deal. Instead, the three E.U. states signed up to the nuclear agreement this week focused on easing trade with Iran. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire announced that Instex, the European special purpose vehicle set up by France, Britain and Germany to enable trade with Iran, would complete its first limited transaction in the next few days.
Meanwhile, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said the country would boost its levels of enriched uranium to any amount it wanted, after the White House called Iran’s breach of the limit on its stock of enriched uranium a violation under the terms of the nuclear deal.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran had not violated the terms of the JCPOA, because a clause in the deal allowed Iran to scale back its commitments if a signatory withdrew from the agreement. The White House said it had not seen any evidence that the Iranian government had triggered the clause.
In a July 1 statement, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called on Iran to halt its uranium enrichment. On the same day, U.S. Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham told reporters: “It was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level.” She also called for a ‘no-enrichment’ policy toward Iran, adding: “Maximum pressure on the Iranian regime will continue until its leaders alter their course of action.”
U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook gave further details on the Maximum Pressure Campaign’s end goal at a meeting in London this week. Hook told attendees that the White House wanted to develop the nuclear deal into a broader treaty addressing Iran’s nuclear program, missile program, regional aggression and ongoing arrests of dual nationals.
The following are excerpts from the interview with Dr. Miller.
Why did Iran decide to exceed the nuclear deal’s limits on its uranium enrichment?
Iran is seeking bargaining leverage in response to US sanctions. Its leaders are sending a message to the United States and Europe that if they don’t provide economic benefits as promised in the nuclear deal, Iran will begin walking away from some of its commitments as well. This is not a rush toward a bomb, it is a political signal.
How do you think the U.S. will respond to this development?
The U.S. will likely impose additional sanctions, although there’s not much more they can do given what’s already been imposed. They may also threaten military force if Iran advances its nuclear program in a substantial way that brings it within months of having enough material for a nuclear weapon.
The U.S. wants a treaty that addresses Iran’s nuclear program, missile program, regional aggression and ongoing arrests of dual nationals. – Under what conditions would Iran agree to such a deal?
It’s extremely unlikely that Iran would agree to the laundry list of conditions laid out by the United States, not only because several of the demands involve core foreign policy interests for Iran, but also because it would make Iran’s leaders look weak domestically and internationally. With a different approach not based on “maximum pressure,” Iran would likely be amenable to negotiation based on a couple of these issues —perhaps missiles, or its involvement in Yemen, for example — but this is unlikely in the current political climate.
Will the U.S.’s Maximum Pressure Campaign against Iran bring about the desired changes?
I don’t think the maximum pressure campaign is likely to succeed. In fact, what we’ve seen so far is that it has had the opposite of the intended effect: Iran is advancing its nuclear program and engaging in military provocations in retaliation for US sanctions.
Should the U.S. and other world powers be doing anything differently?
In an ideal world, the United States would lift or suspend some of the sanctions it has imposed—for example offering waivers for several countries to buy Iranian oil, or allowing Europe to do more business with Iran without facing penalties. This would help deescalate the crisis, bring Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA, and reduce the risk of war. It would also offer a path forward for negotiation on a more realistic set of issues.
This is largely a self-inflicted crisis of the Trump administration’s own making. Many experts warned that U.S. withdrawal would lead Iran to accelerate its nuclear program rather than give in, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing today.
Natasha is Kayhan Life’s managing editor and journalist writing on foreign affairs, Iran, and human rights.
She is a regular commentator on BBC, Sky News, London Live, France 2, RFI and RTL.
Natasha runs a child rights project called Researching Reform which aims to improve legislation and policy for children around the world.