In one move, Iran has simultaneously done both the most and the least provocative thing possible.
Iran’s announcement that it is violating the terms of the JCPOA – otherwise known as the “Iran nuclear deal” – for the very first time marks a symbolic step for the beleaguered state.
But it’s a move that is weighty on its potency while slight in its actual, immediate impact.
Step back from the noise and consider what the deal was meant to do.
In 2015, the deal acknowledged Iran’s growing regional clout, but put geopolitics aside, finding a way to stop Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon in exchange for sanctions relief - even though Iran insisted its program was for peaceful purposes.
Yet US President Donald Trump detested it, and imposed damaging sanctions again, leaving Iran adhering to a deal that it was getting nothing out of.
The European signatories have fumbled to find a mechanism to let Iran keep trading partially, but that’s struggling as nobody in the private sector wants to do business with Tehran if they risk losing access to the US market.
So, what is Iran claiming to have done on Monday? In short, really not very much.
One of the terms of the deal allowed Iran to keep low-enriched uranium – enriched to 3.67% - in a tiny stockpile of 300kg. It was a symbolic limit, the breaching of which is equally symbolic. Iran has threatened to enrich fractionally above 3.67% – perhaps even with a later, more significant, jump up to 20 per cent – but has not done that yet.
Risk of escalation
It’s important to remember one fact here: to make a nuclear bomb, you need uranium enriched to 90% and above. Before the deal, Iran only enriched to 20%, although it takes less work to get from 20 to 90, than from 3.67 to 20, some experts say. So, having marginally more than 300kg of 3.67% uranium gets Iran basically nowhere nearer really having a bomb.
Dr Gary Samore, from the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University said: “these steps are very, very insignificant from a technical standpoint. It is more a bargaining tactic than a nuclear weapons option.” Samore added Iran was trying in future to trade “sanctions relief in exchange for restoring the terms of the JCPOA.”
However, it could have two impacts: one escalatory; the other practical.
First, practically: if Iran is enriching way more uranium at lower levels, it may have more of the centrifuges in action that are needed to enrich it. That could enable it to enrich to higher purities, faster, if it wished to do so.
It hasn’t at this point, and it hasn’t even enriched past the 3.67% purity threshold. It is so far from making a nuclear bomb, it’s like the distance between a cup full of fertilizer and an improvised bomb. (Enrichment in a centrifuge removes the uranium-238 isotopes from the uranium ore dug from the ground, leaving greater concentrations of the uranium-235 isotope that you need for the fission behind a bomb).
On the escalatory level is where it really matters.
This is the first time Iran has violated the terms of the JCPOA. The Trump administration has trashed its own commitments to the pact by re-imposing sanctions. But Iran has threatened to break the nuclear rules if the Europeans didn’t find a way to get it sanctions relief.
Now, by its own admission, Iran has done just that. The IAEA confirmed Monday that the country’s stockpile of 3.67% enriched uranium-235 has exceeded 300kg.
Iran’s enemies can now say it is violating the deal. If both sides are violating a deal, then it is pretty much dead. This will pressure Europeans to drop their insistence that the JCPOA can be kept on life support until a change of leadership at the White House. It risks permitting the Israelis and Saudis to continue to fan the flames towards conflict with Iran. And it risks yet further escalatory action by the Trump administration.
So why did Iran do this? The argument is pretty simple: you can’t abide by the terms of a deal that one of your co-signatories has flouted spectacularly.
Iranian hardliners believe Iran must do something, or else accept limits on their nuclear capabilities in exchange for nothing. But they are smart enough to not take steps that permit adversaries to say they are “breaking out” towards a nuclear weapon.
This is the smallest step Iran could take. But in the volatile game of Twister that Iran finds itself in with the Trump administration, it still risks them all losing balance and collapsing on each other.