Iran Goads West into Tightening Containment

Iran broke new ground this week by breaching the JCPOA’s limits on enriching uranium. In so doing, it inspired a backlash from the White House, Senate Republicans, and EU foreign ministers. Each moved in different ways to counter Tehran’s altering of the nuclear status quo: the White House with rhetoric, Senate Republicans with an intensification of sanctions, and the EU with diplomatic threats.




On Monday, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization announced that the country had begun enriching uranium to 4.5 percent, breaching the limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal. The statement came barely a few days of the group’s earlier announcement of having exceeded the 300 kg limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile.


While Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei tweeted on July 7 that the increase was “purely rooted in economic priorities,” other officials struck a more ominous tone. Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran’s nuclear agency, hinted in a state TV interview broadcast Monday that Iran might consider going to 20 percent enrichment or higher. For his part, Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri took a more aggressive tack: “If the remaining countries in the deal, especially the Europeans, do not fulfill their commitments seriously, and not do anything more than talk, Iran’s third step will be harder, more steadfast, and somehow stunning,”


The change moves Iran’s nuclear capabilities closer to the level of uranium enrichment necessary to produce nuclear weapons. Although enrichment of 90 percent is necessary for weapons-grade plutonium, experts have noted that “industry data shows that more than half of the effort needed to enrich uranium to 90 percent is spent getting from 0.7% to 4%.”




Iran’s moves to break the enrichment limits set by the JCPOA prompted an immediate response from the U.S. administration. On July 3, President Trump responded to Rouhani’s threat to enrich uranium “in any amount that we want”: “Be careful with the threats, Iran. They can come back to bite you like nobody has been bitten before!” Trump added later in the week before a gathering of reporters that "Iran's doing a lot of bad things" in the Middle East and had "better be careful." On July 8, Vice President Mike Pence echoed the President’s sentiments, telling an evangelical Christian group, "Let me be clear: Iran should not confuse American restraint with a lack of American resolve,” and said President Trump would "never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon."


The European Union, which has attempted to play a mediating role between Washington and Tehran, took rare occasion to reprimand Iran. On July 9, the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France, and Germany issued a joint statement to Iran expressing their “deep concern that Iran is pursuing activities inconsistent with its commitments” under the 2015 JCPOA, and insisted that Iran “must act accordingly by reversing these activities and returning to full JCPOA compliance without delay.”


Iran’s enrichment moves also added new force to a growing number of American voices calling for an intensification of the sanctions campaign. Building on their earlier calls for the Trump administration to end a series of waivers which enable primarily European entities to continue joint ventures at Iranian nuclear sites, Senators Cruz, Rubio, and Cotton took the unusual step of writing a joint letter to the White House, declaring, “The Iranians have now changed the nuclear status quo and are trying to create a new normal of minor violations that will enable their creep toward a nuclear weapon. We urge you to end these waivers.” The letter also called for invoking snapback sanctions “against Iranian uranium enrichment, plutonium-related heavy water work, and ballistic missile development.”