Iran says it will stop complying with parts of landmark nuclear deal
By TAMER EL-GHOBASHY AND KAREEM FAHIM | The Washington Post | Published: May 8, 2019
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced Wednesday that his country was taking steps to halt its compliance with elements of a landmark nuclear accord, in a move that appeared certain to aggravate tensions with the United States.
In a televised speech, Rouhani said that Iran would hold on to stockpiles of excess uranium and heavy water used in its nuclear reactors. He set a 60-day deadline for new terms to the nuclear accord, after which Tehran would resume higher uranium enrichment.
"We are ready to negotiate, within the boundaries of JCPOA," he said referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. "It is not us who has left the negotiation table."
In November, the United States reimposed sanctions that have strangled Iran's oil and banking sectors as well as its foreign trade. The sanctions came after the Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the pact that Iran negotiated with world powers in 2015 and that curbed its nuclear program in exchange for widespread sanctions relief.
Rouhani's speech coincided with the first anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal and came amid heightened American economic and military pressure on Iran, including the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Middle East — a move that U.S. officials say was in response to credible indications that Tehran planned to attack U.S. interests in the region.
In his speech, Rouhani stressed that Iran's new posture toward the nuclear accord is intended to spur negotiations rather than confrontation and that Tehran is growing impatient with upholding its commitment to a deal that has provided little of its promised economic and political benefit.
"We will not start breaching commitments and waging any war," he said. "But we will not give in to bullying either."
Iran had been complying fully with the terms of the deal even after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew last year, according to the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The measures announced by Rouhani came after speculation that Iran would take a more provocative approach, including fully exiting the accord or moving immediately to higher uranium enrichment. It was unclear whether the less dramatic moves it adopted would prevent a further unraveling of the deal or forestall additional punitive measures by allies or adversaries.
Underscoring the significance of Iran's move, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to Moscow and delivered a personal letter on Wednesday from Rouhani to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tehran's closest international ally.
Rouhani praised Moscow — also a signatory to the JCPOA — as a friend of Iran but said other participants in the deal have "failed to fulfill their obligations."
"You know, we've been patient for a year," Zarif told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to a Russian translation of Zarif's remarks.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Putin saw "no alternative" to the Iran nuclear deal, Russian news agencies reported. Peskov said the Trump administration's "poorly conceived, reckless decisions" have led Iran to curtail its commitments.
"Russian diplomats will certainly continue to discuss this issue, including with European partners, in order to achieve the long-term sustainability" of the Iran deal, Peskov said.
European officials, however, warned that Iran risks further isolation from Wednesday's decision and gave little indication that the 60-day deadline set by Tehran would spur them to further resist American policies.
Britain's junior foreign minister, Mark Field, said Iran's move is an "unwelcome step." He told the House of Commons that government officials are "analyzing the detail of it and are in close contact with the other parties to the deal."
French officials said Iran could face sanctions as a result of its decision.
"Today, nothing would be worse than Iran, itself, leaving this accord," French Defense Minister Florence Parly told France's BFMTV on Wednesday.
But she said that Europe remains committed to supporting the agreement. Europe "wants to be able to continue to keep this agreement alive," she said.
European leaders have tried for a year to scrape together incentives for Iran that could shield at least part of the pain of the U.S. sanctions. But their flagship effort — a technically tangled investment vehicle intended to bypass some U.S. financial restrictions — has failed to deliver. Most European companies have pulled out of Iran, calculating that the cost of U.S. wrath is far greater than any profit possible from trade with Tehran.
The Iranian announcement appeared calibrated to force Europeans to pick a side in the coming weeks: do more business in Iran and risk inflaming tensions with Washington, or watch the Iranians walk away from the deal.
European diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss their assessments of Wednesday's announcement, offered no new concessions that might bolster Iran's economy. They said European foreign ministers would discuss a response at a previously scheduled meeting on Tuesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has staunchly opposed the Iranian nuclear deal from the outset and credits his own lobbying for triggering the Trump administration's withdrawal, referred to Rouhani's announcement during a ceremony on Wednesday to mark Israel Memorial Day.
"We will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons," he said. "We will continue to fight those who seek our souls, and we will deepen our roots even further into the homeland."
Israel's security establishment has been more mixed in its assessment of the advantages of retaining a deal and is concerned that Iran will now accelerate its nuclear program in the near future, Israel's Army Radio reported on Wednesday.
The military believes that in the wake of U.S. sanctions and international pressure on Iran, Tehran will be more assertive in the region, and Israel is "braced" for Iranian aggression, the station said.
The Israeli military declined to comment.
Iran's decision comes amid relentless targeting of its economic and military sectors by the White House.
The United States has imposed sanctions on purchasers of Iranian oil and designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military, as a terrorist group. On Friday, the State Department announced new restrictions on Iran's civil nuclear program, despite protests by European allies.
There was no immediate reaction from the White House to the Iranian announcement. Rouhani sent a letter notifying the signatories to the nuclear deal of Iran's reduced commitments on Wednesday, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
The original signatories apart from the United States — Britain, France, Germany and the European Union, in addition to Russia and China — have continued to support the nuclear accord and have been unable to hinder the White House's determination to isolate Iran.
Uranium used as fuel in power plants needs to be enriched only to a low level. However, when it is enriched to much higher levels, it can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Iran has not produced weapons-grade enriched uranium.
Ultimately, "the Iranians certainly tried to find the mildest first step here, which would both pressure the Europeans and appease their domestic constituents without provoking a strong reaction from the U.S. and angering the Russians too much," Ariane Tabatabai, an associate political scientist at the Rand Corp., said in a text message.
"Iran says it'll stop adhering to the stockpile limits in the deal, but in practice, it may not actually go above those limits - that remains to be seen," she said. "It's not like they're making the decision now to stop adhering to the limit and tomorrow they'll go above it. It'll take time and may or may not happen within the time frame they've fixed for themselves."
Iran was also hoping to spur European allies to take a more "proactive" role in sustaining the nuclear accord and stand up to the United States, she said.
"The Iranians actually don't want the JCPOA to collapse, and they don't want to have to take the next steps they've laid out because they know it can torpedo the deal."
Fahim reported from Istanbul. Michael Birnbaum in Brussels, Anton Troianovski in Moscow and Ruth Eglash and Loveday Morris in Jerusalem contributed to this report.