Iran has announced it will no longer fully comply with the landmark nuclear deal it signed with the United States and five other nations in 2015, following Washington’s own reneging on the agreement and increased diplomatic and military pressure on Tehran.
Iran’s partial withdrawal from the deal, which took years of negotiation, could be a potentially dangerous development in one of the Middle East’s most complex issues.
But that very complexity – along with obfuscation and possible exaggeration from parties on both sides – can make understanding what’s going on very difficult.
What’s Iran doing?
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani explained in a television appearance Wednesday that his country would no longer abide by some of its commitments in the deal regarding the production of fissile material, a year after President Donald Trump announced the US was pulling out of the accord.
The country said it would no longer respect limitations on keeping enriched uranium and heavy water reserves, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said in a statement published by Iranian media.
Iran was previously allowed to export excess heavy water and uranium, but the US has recently revoked waivers that allowed Iran to sell those stockpiles.
The statement also said Iran would give the remaining signatories 60 days to ease restrictions on its banking and oil sectors. Sanctions on those two industries were supposed to be eased as part of the deal, but the Trump administration reenacted them after abandoning it.
The Iranian statement said if those issues were not resolved within the two-month time frame, Tehran would cease to abide by further restrictions.
Rouhani said his country did not seek to leave the agreement – officially titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – and called Wednesday’s move a “new step” within the deal’s framework.
Why is Iran doing this?
Let’s start with the deal itself.
The JCPOA was intended to limit Iran’s civilian nuclear program – thereby preventing it from developing nuclear weapons at some point in the future – in exchange for relief from the sanctions that were crippling the Iranian economy.
The deal was struck in Vienna following two years of intensive talks orchestrated by the Obama administration. It was signed by Iran and six other nations in 2015 – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany. The accord was also enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution, making it international law.
Under the deal, the Iranian government agreed to three key things:
Reducing the number of its centrifuges by two-thirds (centrifuges are tube-shaped machines used to enrich uranium, the material necessary for nuclear power); slashing its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98%; and capping uranium enrichment at 3.67% – enough to continue powering parts of the country’s energy needs, but not enough to ever build a nuclear bomb.
In addition, Iran was required to limit uranium research and development, and allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certain access to its civilian nuclear facilities.
In return for its compliance, all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were lifted in January 2016, reconnecting the country’s stagnating economy with international markets.
Why did the US pull out of the agreement?
Hawkish leaders in the US, especially Trump and other Republicans, were extremely critical of the deal.
Some thought the US gave the Iranian regime too many benefits for too little in exchange. Others faulted negotiators for failing to address Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and not putting limits on Tehran’s ballistic missile development.
They also worried that the deal did not do enough to block Iran’s alleged pathway to a bomb and that the country could reverse course in the years after the agreement after reaping the benefits of sanctions relief.
Some experts believe that, should Iran choose to resume the enrichment of uranium, it could build a bomb within about a year. However, Tehran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has always maintained that its nuclear research is purely civilian in nature.
The Obama administration maintained that the 2015 deal was based on verification, not trust, with an intrusive monitoring regime that would watch the country “24-7.” If Iran were to violate it, sanctions would “snap back,” the deal’s proponents said.
The deal’s architects also said it would have been impossible to secure an agreement that would completely change the behavior of the Iranian regime, so instead it chose to focus solely on preventing it from ever developing nuclear weapons.
“The Obama administration made a clear decision that working on those other issues, making progress on those, is easier with an Iran that does not have a nuclear weapon then with an Iran which is working towards one,” former Secretary of State John Kerry said last year.
So what’s Washington done since leaving the accord?
Since pulling out of the deal, the US has reintroduced all nuclear-related sanctions against Tehran, along with a slew of other punitive measures.
The pressure has been increased further in the past month. Washington has further moved to cut off Iran’s oil revenues, its chief source of foreign income; put curbs on its civilian nuclear work; and designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite military unit with deep political and economic influence, as a terrorist group.
In recent days, the US military deployed a carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East in response to what US national security adviser and longtime Iran hawk John Bolton described as “number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran.
The strike group was en route to the Strait of Hormuz, a 21-mile wide waterway that separates Iran from other Gulf countries and is used to ship about 30% of the world’s crude oil.
US officials have framed their moves as response to “specific and credible” intelligence about an impending threat from Iran and its proxy forces against US forces in Syria, but had at first declined to go into specifics. Several US officials later said that intelligence suggested Iranian forces were moving short- and medium-range ballistic missiles aboard boats in the Persian Gulf, much of which falls within Iranian territorial waters or the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Where does Europe fit into all this?
The announcement puts European signatories to the deal in a delicate position – either side with the Trump administration and walk away from the deal, or preserve the pact by caving in to Iranian calls to ease restrictions on banking and oil trade, despite the threat of US sanctions.
Germany, France and Britain announced in January that they would establish their own trade channel with Iran to allow payments to flow between Europe and Tehran and circumvent US sanctions. But Iran said the system fell short of Europe’s commitments under the pact, and it was unclear how willing European firms were to take up the new channel given the threat of US penalties.
US Vice President Mike Pence described the scheme in February as an ill-advised “effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime” that would “create still more distance between Europe and the United States.”
Over the weekend, the European signatories again criticized the Trump administration’s re-imposition of sanctions, and said Iran had continued to comply with the terms of the deal.
CNN’s Sheena McKenzie, Nicole Gaouette, Tara John, Barbara Starr and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report