As the Trump administration bumbles its way into a new security crisis with Iran, you may have gotten the impression from apocalyptic media coverage and viral social posts that Tehran has decided to pull out of the Obama-era “Iran nuclear deal,” officially known as the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. You might also have the impression that it did this because of Trump’s decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani, the major general in charge of Iran’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, last week. The New York Times ran a headline on Sunday declaring that “Iran Challenges Trump, Announcing End of Nuclear Restrictions.” Time magazine took things further, declaring that “Iran Abandons 2015 Nuclear Deal Over U.S. Killing Gen. Soleimani.”
Both missed the mark and sensationalized the truth. Iran did not leave the JCPOA or even suspend its compliance with all of the agreement’s provisions. Iran remains a party to the deal—for now—and announced only that it will no longer observe the agreement’s limitations on the number of centrifuges it is permitted to operate. (Centrifuges are used to enrich uranium for civilian and military nuclear applications; the accord’s provision was intended to put a ceiling on Iran’s total capacity to produce enriched uranium.)
Nothing about Tehran’s announcement, made on Sunday, indicates that Iran is about to build a bomb: Inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency remain in the country, watching. Critically, Tehran also remains a party to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non–nuclear weapon state, which bars it from building atomic arms. (Only four nations on earth have yet to sign the NPT: South Sudan, India, Pakistan, and Israel. North Korea pulled out of the treaty in 2003.)
The JCPOA not only made access to bomb-grade nuclear fuel—both plutonium and uranium—scarce for Iran but ensured verification means that would make it almost impossible for the nation to undertake a covert sprint to the bomb. Even as Iran violates the agreement’s centrifuge provision, it has not transgressed what would be a major red line: expelling international inspectors. Such an action would block insights into Iran’s civil nuclear activities, increasing the odds that fissile material could be diverted to a covert weapons program.
But beyond those specifics, it’s dangerous to jump to the conclusion that Iran’s weekend announcement had much at all to do with the U.S. strike on Soleimani. Despite all the sound and fury from Tehran about that attack, which has fueled one of the most ominous crises of the Trump era, Sunday’s declaration was eminently predictable.
The JCPOA is a 150-plus-page technical agreement, but its core bargain is a simple one. In exchange for agreeing to verified limits on its civil nuclear program, Iran won relief from punishing sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and the international community. (In addition to the U.S. and Iran, parties to the deal include China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Union.) But in May 2018, the Trump administration reneged on the deal, declaring that it would reimpose tough sanctions on Iran.
In response, Tehran announced last May—exactly one year after Trump’s 2018 renege—that it would cease complying with the JCPOA’s limits on stockpiles of heavy water and enriched uranium. Sixty days later, Iran announced that it had exceeded JCPOA limits on enriched uranium, then declared that it would begin producing uranium that was more enriched than the deal allowed. In September, another 60 days after its last announcement, Iran followed up with a declaration that it would no longer adhere to the “research and development” limitations on more advanced centrifuge designs. Yet another announcement came in November: Iran said it would inject uranium gas at its Fordow facility and begin enriching uranium there.
Sunday’s announcement came 60 days after the last announcement in November, the latest in a very predictable, very public incremental campaign—which, again, is taking place under the supervision of IAEA inspectors in the country—to expand Iran’s civil uranium capacity.
In other words, Iran was right on schedule, and its announcement had little to do with Soleimani. The official Iranian statement contextualized this latest move as its “fifth step” on a path to atomic energy independence, adding: “Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA will continue as before.” Unfortunately, the timing of the announcement so soon after the Soleimani strike meant that headline writers (and headline-reading pundits) couldn’t help but connect the two.
To uninitiated observers, it might have appeared that Iran was lashing out against restrictions on its nuclear program under the JCPOA as a result of the Soleimani strike—an apparent escalation that would certainly feed the talking points of Iran hawks in the U.S.—but Tehran, in fact, is coasting along the same path it had vowed to pursue almost a year ago, after American prodding. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to Twitter to say as much, noting that Iran had not left the JCPOA and that all the steps Iran had taken to date would be “reversible upon EFFECTIVE implementation of reciprocal obligations.” In other words, if the U.S. went back to respecting the agreement, so would Iran. Tehran couldn’t have made its case much more clearly and gradually.
Unfortunately, the deteriorating situation in the Middle East and the moves by the U.S. against Iran are ill portents for the future of the JCPOA. Since the Soleimani assassination, it is difficult to imagine Iran returning fully to compliance with the agreement. The European parties to the JCPOA, while deeply committed to the agreement, are running short on patience with Washington and Tehran, too. France has indicated it is considering invoking the accord’s dispute-resolution mechanism, which would short-circuit what remains of the deal and potentially “snap back” the expansive United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran that had been lifted as part of the agreement.
On Monday, President Trump tweeted—in all caps—that “IRAN WILL NEVER HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPON!” The JCPOA—when it was working—was the best means to ensure that. Now the administration is giving Iran every reason to revisit its 2015 commitments. If there’s a lesson for Tehran in its treatment by this American administration, it’s that not having a nuclear deterrent can get you killed. On the other hand, having a bomb—and the means to deliver it to the U.S. homeland—gets you a stage-managed summit, as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has demonstrated.
For now, the Iranians have indicated that there’s still a way to preserve the JCPOA: The U.S. simply has to go back to honoring the bargain at the deal’s core. But time is running out, tensions are growing, and hard-liners in Iran—including many who have called to pull the country out of the NPT—might soon have free rein to steer national policy in Tehran, just as Trump’s coterie has in Washington.