Iran Throws Down the Gauntlet

Tightening US Sanctions are Leading to Fears of Renewed Unrest as the Economic Toll Climbs

Tehran’s contest of nuclear brinkmanship with the West entered a new phase as Iran moved this week towards resuming uranium enrichment with advanced centrifuges, signaling a deepening break with the provisions of the 2015 JCPOA. For its part, the American-led sanctions regime on Iranian crude oil is tightening, causing exports to fall, and leading to fears of renewed unrest as the economic toll climbs.


Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter to the EU’s Foreign Affairs representative, Federica Mogherini, announcing that Iran would no longer comply with the limits on uranium enrichment as set forth in the nuclear agreement of 2015. According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi, the letter announced that “Iran ceases all its commitments in JCPOA in the field of nuclear research and development as of today [Thursday, September 5].”

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran followed through on Zarif’s threat and has begun installing more advanced centrifuges forbidden by the terms of the JCPOA. That agreement generally limited Iran’s enrichment to first-generation IR-1 centrifuge machines; according to the IAEA, Iranian scientists have begun making preparations for installing 164 more advanced centrifuges of the IR-2m and IR-4 cascades.

This marks the third time in the last year that Iran has cast off restrictions imposed by the international nuclear agreement in retaliation for the U.S. decision to leave the JCPOA and re-impose sanctions.  Ali Akbar Salehi, director of Iran's nuclear energy agency, lay the blame squarely on European shoulders, charging that "unfortunately the European parties have failed to fulfill their commitments,” and adding that “the deal is not a one-way street and Iran will act accordingly as we have done so far by gradually downgrading our commitments."

For his part, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves sounded a more optimistic note, projecting confidence that the Iranian measures would ultimately be resolved and saying that "the actions they have taken are negative but not definitive. They can come back [to full compliance]  and the path of dialogue is still open."


Another move arousing interest among Iran observers came on September 7, when IRGC commander Hossein Salami appointed Brigadier General Gholamhossein Gheybparvar as his deputy at the Central Security Headquarters, in what many viewed as a bid to prepare for a possible wave of protests. Gheybparvar will assume command of the Imam Ali Central Security Headquarters, a unit which was assigned the task in 2011 of suppressing public protests.

Gheybparvar developed a reputation as a hard-line commander when serving in Fars province for attempting to suppress Western-style cultural events, criticizing former President Rafsanjani, and engineering an attack by plainclothes agents on lawmaker Ali Motahari during the latter’s visit to Shiraz in 2014.

Recent developments underscore the need for such preparations. In August, according to the data intelligence firm Kpler, Iranian oil exports declined drastically to roughly 160,000 barrels per day (bpd), a nearly 60% drop from July’s total of 365,000, and barely 7% of the 2.5 million bpd export total prior to the reimposition of U.S. sanctions.

At the same time, American officials took measures to tighten the sanctions regime still further. On September 4, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a far-flung shipping network used by Iran to export oil and run by Rostam Ghasemi, Iran’s former minister of petroleum. The Treasury Department’s latest round of sanctions included 26 individuals and entities affiliated with the IRGC, as well as 11 ships, and exposing anyone who owns, operates, or cooperates with them to future sanctions. As Sigal Mandelker, U.S. Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence put it: "We will continue to put pressure on Iran and as President (Trump) said there will be no waivers of any kind for Iran's oil."