Iran’s president announced on Wednesday that the nation would stop complying with some parts of the nuclear accord it signed with world powers as President Donald Trump’s administration has ratcheted up economic and military pressure on Tehran.
Hassan Rouhani said his country would reduce its compliance with the 2015 deal. The declaration came on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s complete withdrawal from an agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
Rouhani said Iran will start keeping excess uranium and “heavy water” from its nuclear program inside the country – as opposed to selling it internationally – in a move that effectively amounts to a partial breach of the deal. He also set a 60-day deadline for new terms to its nuclear accord, absent the U.S., with Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the European Union. If those new terms aren’t met, he threatened to resume higher uranium enrichment, the process that creates nuclear fuel.
“We felt that the nuclear deal needs a surgery and the painkiller pills of the last year have been ineffective,” Rouhani said in a nationally televised address.
“This surgery is for saving the deal, not destroying it.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was in Moscow, tweeted: “After a year of patience, Iran stops measures that (the) U.S. has made impossible to continue.” Zarif warned world powers have “a narrowing window to reverse this.”
Experts said Iran’s move represented a relatively soft counter-punch to the Trump administration’s intense campaign to isolate the regime politically and economically.
“Iran has taken minimum retaliatory measures against U.S. maximum pressure,” tweeted Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the Crisis Group, a nonpartisan group focused on preventing conflict. “This slow motion escalation is the continuation of the same strategy as before: buying time. It also has the same effect as before: gradual erosion of the JCPOA,” he wrote, using the acronym for the multi-lateral nuclear agreement.
Others echoed that assessment and said that Iran’s announcement did not necessary signal a desire by the regime to become a nuclear-armed nation.
“I think we should be very careful about assuming that Iran stepping away from the JCPOA means stepping closer to the bomb,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, a dual American-Iranian national who runs a news and research agency focused on Iran’s economy. He noted that Iran is still a party to an international nuclear non-proliferation treaty and has not seriously pursued a nuclear weapons program for over a decade.
“So far, Iran remains committed to the deal and we should not trap ourselves in a deal/bomb binary,” said London-based Batmanghelidj.
Iran’s announcement came as the White House has appeared to inch closer to a military confrontation with Iran than at any other time during Trump’s presidency. The Pentagon has redirected aircraft bombers and a carrier strike group to the Middle East after claiming it intercepted intelligence indicating that Iran or its proxies in the region might be preparing attacks on American military troops and facilities.
Last month, Trump designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, an elite wing of the nation’s military that also plays a large economic role, a terrorist organization.
The economic sanctions the White House has imposed since withdrawing from the nuclear deal officially target Iran’s government and key industries but they have also hindered Iranians’ access to essential medicines and consumer products. More economic penalties on Tehran from Washington are expected soon, according to Tim Morrison, a member of the Trump administration’s National Security Council.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took an unscheduled trip to Iraq on Tuesday where he told reporters that he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and briefed Iraqi officials on the “increased threat stream that we had seen” from Iranian forces.
“We talked to them about the importance of Iraq ensuring that it’s able to adequately protect Americans in their country,” Pompeo said.
“I think everyone will look at the Iranian decision and have to make their own assessment about how much increased risk there is,” he added.
There are about 5,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq. After pulling out of the nuclear deal, the Trump administration has renewed crippling economic sanctions on Iran that have isolated the nation economically and harmed its capacity to export oil.
America’s top diplomat gave an address Wednesday in London where the topic of rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran came up up again, although there was no immediate response from the White House to Rouhani’s announcement.
“They take hostages, and repress their own people. I urge the UK to stand with us to rein in the regime’s bloodletting and lawlessness, not soothe the Ayatollahs angry at our decision to pull out of the nuclear deal,” Pompeo said in Britain’s capital.
Former President Barack Obama, whose administration negotiated the nuclear deal, sought to block Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons through diplomacy. The Trump administration, by contrast, has not been shy in its preference for a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran and has cut off all contact with the regime as its attempts to bring its oil revenues down to zero through increasingly hard-hitting sanctions.
European signatories to the nuclear accord have meanwhile attempted to stay in the nuclear agreement by establishing a financial mechanism, known as INSTEX, intended to help them circumvent U.S. sanctions, but it has yet not been fully implemented.
While the Pentagon and White House officials have insisted they are not seeking a war with Iran, political scientists and Iran-watchers have expressed concern that the Trump administration’s growing, aggressive posture toward Tehran is a reflection of Pompeo’s and National Security Adviser John Bolton’s long-harbored dislike of the country.
Animosity between the U.S. and Iran stretches back decades to when the CIA helped install a dictator as Iran’s leader in 1953 followed by a hostage crisis in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that coincided with the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
Pompeo and Bolton believe that confronting Iran is key to achieving peace and security in the Middle East, and both men are among Iran’s fiercest critics in Washington.
Yet they have provided few details about the nature of the new threat that has led to the sending of a carrier strike group and bomber task force to the Persian Gulf. Iran-backed militias killed 608 U.S. soldiers in Iraq from 2003-2011, according to the Pentagon. Tehran is regularly accused of being the largest state sponsor of terrorism, but the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has repeatedly verified that the regime has been adhering to the 2015 nuclear pact – even after the U.S.’s departure last May.
“The (nuclear deal) is doing what it was designed to do: preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. As such, the deal is too important to be allowed to die,” the directors of 18 foreign affairs think tanks and research institutes wrote in a joint letter published Wednesday as Iran signaled that the accord could totally unravel.
“I’m deeply worried that the Trump administration is leading us toward an unnecessary war with Iran,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in a statement late Tuesday.
“Let me make one thing clear: The Trump administration has no legal authority to start a war against Iran without the consent of Congress.”
Batmanghelidj, in London, said that “Iranians perceive something deeply vindictive about the way the Trump administration is treating their country. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people are growing more supportive of the Islamic Republic. It is possible to be dismayed with both the U.S. government and their own government.”
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook
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