Iran has officially surpassed the enrichment level set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as of Monday. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javid Zarif announced that Iran had crossed the 300-kilogram limit, which was confirmed by General Yukiya Amano, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The limit had been implemented as part of the peace accords designed to limit the nation’s nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Iran’s willingness to break through the stockpile ceiling is its latest maneuver in its standoff with the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump set in motion a series of escalatory events when he pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA. Since that time, there has been sabre-rattling from officials of both governments, demands, an American drone shot down, and mysterious oil tanker attacks for which Iran took the blame. There have not, however, been diplomatic negotiations, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressing their desire for discussion.
Most critically, there have been harsh economic sanctions leveraged by Washington. These sanctions are the heart of the issue as Iran’s economy suffocates and its oil exports continue to plunge. While the U.S. reneged on the nuclear agreement, it still expects Iran to uphold it, an attitude that comes across as hypocritical in Tehran. Furthermore, it is also expected to suffer the sanctions without retaliation.
Exceeding the stockpile quota is one of the few cards Tehran could play in order to provoke the U.S. to return to the negotiating table. Following this, Zarif said it would begin enriching uranium above 3.76 percent. Crossing these lines is also a call for help to European nations which might be able to provide some relief or mediation. The immediate reaction from European leaders, however, has not been favorable.
Jeremey Hunt, United Kingdom foreign secretary, called for Iran to return to the limits set by the agreement as did French President Emmanuel Macron. As their governments continue to uphold their side of the deal by not retriggering United Nations or European Union sanctions, something they are well within their rights to do since Iran is officially in violation of the accord.
China and Russia have taken a different tone by publicly accused the U.S. of instigating the crisis. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that the “Iranian side has repeatedly stressed that it is willing to stay in a comprehensive agreement, and the measures it has taken are reversible.” Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, pointed out that because of U.S. sanctions imposed in May, other countries have been unable to purchase the low-enriched uranium and heavy water from Tehran. With that in consideration, the only options for Iran were to surpass the 300-kilogram limit or simply halt their nuclear activities.
As a countermeasure to U.S. sanctions, the E.U. revealed the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) system at the beginning of the year. It went into effect on June 30, but will likely fall short of the relief Tehran needs. INSTEX was put together by the U.K., France, and Germany and allows for trade with Iran without using the U.S. dollar. Instead, companies dealing with Iran will barter between each other to exchange payment in the form of goods. The same will happen with Iranian companies through its newly created Special Trade and Finance Institute (STFI).
While the idea behind INSTEX and STFI is creative, it is unlikely to have a profound effect on the economy due to its limited nature – only medicine, medical products, and food will be offered on the exchange system. These humanitarian-focused products are not even sanctioned to begin with. Furthermore, while the system would effectively skirt U.S. sanctions (if sanctioned products were even offered), it risks drawing fire from the Trump administration which has threatened anyone who does business with Iran. Washington foreign policy is not concerned with trivial technicalities where Tehran is concerned: “maximum pressure” is expected of all U.S. allies.
With Europe and other world powers seemingly handicapped, Iran is gradually playing all its cards to exert leverage where it can. Slowly, those cards are being burnt up, a prospect that begs the question of “What will Iran do when it runs out of diplomatic options?”
When news broke of Iran exceeding the first nuclear limit, Trump issued a warning to Tehran. “No message to Iran. They know what they’re doing,” he said. “They know what they’re playing with, and I think they’re playing with fire. So, no message to Iran whatsoever.”
Yesterday, a confusing White House press release also alleged that “There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms.” Zarif issued a one-word reply on Twitter asking, “Seriously?”
As it’s quite impossible to violate terms of a deal before a deal is even made, it’s likely the White House meant that Iran had been violating the deal before the U.S. walked out, an unfounded claim that it has used to rationalize the restoration of sanctions.