Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced Oct. 14 that Tehran would continue with a plan to downscale its commitment to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to as the Iranian nuclear deal. The march toward its complete withdrawal from the framework has been gradual and well-publicized by the Iranian government in order to hopefully convince European powers to intervene. By giving the international community advance notice of its nuclear moves, Iran has tried to force a sense of urgency upon it, although by most accounts the strategy has not worked.
In May, the government began the first steps of extricating itself from the agreement by exceeding nuclear stockpile limits. It was authorized under the accord to possess up to 300 kilograms for uranium. Then it breached the enrichment cap, which was set at 3.76 percent. Now, according to Rouhani, Iran is preparing to begin the development of advanced centrifuges, which were limited to 6,104 IR-1 level equipment. Prior to the Obama-era deal, Iran had over 10,000 centrifuges, but it rapidly shuttered half of them to comply with the JCPOA.
In September, Iran spun up 20 IR-6 centrifuges and 20 IR-4 models, producing enriched uranium 10 times and five times faster, respectively. Rouhani’s announcement signaled a continuation of his recent policy to pressure the world to do something, anything, to come to its economic defense as the Iranian economy hit rock-bottom. Senior members of the Iranian Parliament echoed his sentiment while taking it a step further by declaring that international inspectors would have reduced access to Iran’s nuclear program.
“We will certainly take the fourth step of reducing commitments to the JCPOA; Europeans have not honoured their part of the commitments and we have not seen any practical step taken by the other side, said Hossein Naghavi-Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s national security committee. “When the other party doesn’t fulfill its commitments, there is no necessity for us to meet our part of commitments.”
Until this point, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have had unprecedented access to Iranian nuclear sites and before May, each of their verifications confirmed Tehran was in full compliance with the JCPOA. The French foreign ministry called on Iran not to proceed with these “particularly worrying steps,” but as Rouhani has said recently, he has only heard words from European leaders without seeing any action.
The problem Iran faces is that regardless of whether or not it complies with the nuclear deal, it still must endure American sanctions. While the European Union and United Nations have yet to reimpose sanctions for violating terms of the agreement, Iran has already faced severe economic hardship because international businesses and governments fear doing business in Iran will lead to retaliation from the United States. Therefore, it is essentially already operating under international sanctions for all intents and purposes.
According to Tehran, inflation has soared to 43 percent, but the real figure may be much higher as the cost of food and medicine has increased 43 to 60 percent as the EU reported. Housing prices have also doubled and the GDP has shrunken.
For Iran, outside of downscaling its adherence to the nuclear deal, its options are fairly limited. The most obvious tactic it could employ is to clamp down on the Strait of Hormuz. The shipping channel is vital to the global oil industry as 25 percent of shipments pass through it. In the past, Tehran has issued vague threats about the possibility of closing the channel, but the reality is doing so would almost certainly turn into armed conflict. Given Iran’s relationship with its neighbors, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a military conflict would be unlikely to go in Iran’s favor.
Alternatively, Iran could turn to more-friendly powers such as Russia and China for recourse. Both have publicly spoken out against the US sanctions in support of Tehran and China has economical power it could wield to rival America. As China is already aligned against the US in terms of trade, it would simply be a continuation of Beijing’s policy to buck Washington.
Iran could also look to regional governments for improved relations. Rouhani said discussions with UAE diplomats have went well and it is currently negotiating with Saudi Arabia to end hostilities. If it were to also bring Qatar onboard, which has become more open to Iran following the blockade, Iran could broker some sort of regional economic plan to stabilize itself.
However, when ti comes to negotiating with the US, there are few options for Tehran. Even exceeding the nuclear deal limitations is a card being played against the EU, not America. Despite this, Rouhani said he is open to negotiating with Washington, however sanctions must be removed first. For the US, it is Iran which must make the first move and it appears neither will budge anytime soon.