One year after US withdrawal from nuclear deal, Iran tests the deal’s limits of interpretation

While Iran says it will resume some of the activities it curtailed under the deal, this does not mean it is building a nuclear bomb.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran on May 08, 2019. CREDIT: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY - HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran on May 08, 2019. CREDIT: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY - HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday announced that the country would halt its compliance of certain clauses of the landmark nuclear agreement — ones subject to interpretation — exactly one year after the United States withdrew from the agreement.

Rouhani said the country would stop selling excess stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water from its nuclear reactors in 60 days. These specific actions are not in direct violation of the 2015 deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — but test the limit of interpretation of the agreement’s provisions.

The JCPOA, a deal struck between Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany, saw Iran limiting the scope of its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. That relief never truly materialized after President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal, reimposed sanctions, and threatened other partners in the deal with secondary sanctions should they continue to do business with Iran.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Iranian response was predictable and that the world is now seeing the “consequences” of the U.S. decision to pull out of the deal.

Rouhani said Iran was ready to “negotiate, within the boundaries of JCPOA.” He later tweeted:

Asked if the scope of activity mentioned by Rouhani indicates that Iran is building a nuclear weapon, Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball said the “short answer is ‘no.'”


“The initial steps they announced are not indicative of bomb-making intentions, but over time the situation could become worse,” he said over email.

As reported by ThinkProgress on Monday, this anticipated move is intended to put pressure on European partners in the deal to find a way to deliver on the economic benefits of the JCOPA. Iran’s already struggling economy has taken a hit since Trump pulled out of the deal, with inflation, banking, and trade restrictions causing medical shortages.

France’s Defense Minister Florence Parly said the deal needs to be kept alive, telling French television that “nothing would be worse than Iran leaving this deal.”

Richard Nephew, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy, told ThinkProgress that the actions mentioned by Rouhani more or less aligned with his expectations of how Iran would try to pressure Europeans without outright violating the terms of the JCPOA, but he was surprised by the 60-day deadline.

“It really sets up for an escalation process that may become uncontrollable,” said Nephew, who worked on the JCPOA.

“But that’s not itself a surprise. I expected we would be in a bad place for a while,” he added.

Iran has complied with the terms of the deal, as supported by numerous inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency. Other partners in the deal urged the United States to stay in the deal, and have been trying to come up with economic mechanisms to keep it in place.


In an NPR interview on Wednesday morning, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook accused Iran of “engaging in nuclear blackmail,” mirroring Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s repeated charge that the United States is engaging in “economic terrorism.”

This latest development comes as the Trump administration continues its “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran. On Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton indicated that the routine deployment of a U.S. carrier to the Persian Gulf was in fact a sign that the United States was preparing for some kind of direct military engagement with Iran.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cancelled a trip to Germany, going to Iraq instead to deal with what the administration said were “international security issues.” He pressed to Iraqi leaders that there would be “imminent” attacks coming for Iran — or, more likely, Iranian-backed militia — against U.S. targets there.

It would be an unusual move to send a secretary of state into the direct path of danger. After taking off from Iraq, Pompeo told the press traveling with him that he made the trip to impress upon Iraqi officials “the importance of Iraq ensuring that it’s able to adequately protect Americans in their country. They both provided assurances that they understood that was their responsibility.”