Watching Iran reduce its commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is like viewing a slow-motion attempt to develop nuclear weapons, but it is done in such a way so that it appears to be a legitimate ratcheting up of pressure on Western powers to give Iran something to stop its progress.
This is Iran's centrifuge diplomacy, which combines open declarations of what it is doing and intends to do. Is it really about developing nuclear weapons, which could be done clandestinely, or something more complex?
Iran said on Saturday it was now capable of raising uranium enrichment past the 20% level and has launched advanced centrifuge machines in further breaches of commitments to limit its nuclear activity under the JCPOA agreement.
"We have started lifting limitations on our research and development imposed by the deal... It will include development of more rapid and advanced centrifuges," Iranian nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said at a televised news conference.
Is Iranian brinksmanship about developing nuclear weapons or something more complex?
According to Iran's Press TV, Tehran is turning on advanced centrifuges to increase the country's uranium stockpiles. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran warned "signatories to a 2015 nuclear deal that the clock is ticking to salvage the landmark agreement." This is the "third step," Iran says. It claims it activated two groups of 20 centrifuges "for research and development purposes."
These are the IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges. Iran says that it has given the remaining European JCPOA signatories four months during which they didn't meet two 60-day deadlines. Ironically, it is European countries that have been most sympathetic to Iran, opposing new US sanctions, and hosting Iranian politicians from mayors to the president and foreign minister. But European countries pay lip service to doing something for Iran, while they actually don't do much.
In local media, Iran specifies more issues that it wants to tackle. Tasnim News Agency says one issue is heavy water production; fuel enrichment is not to exceed 300 tons of enriched material at 3.67% purity.
Then there are issues relating to the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, IAEA oversight and transparency. In July, Iran said it had surpassed the 3.67% enrichment rate. On July 7, Kamalvandi said that Iran would go beyond the 3.67% level. At the time, he said Iran had not "yet decided on the level of enrichment for the Tehran research reactor."
According to those reports, Iran wanted more enriched material for its Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant and 20% for its research reactor. Iran says that it will not install the centrifuges at its Fordow plant, leaving questions about what it is doing.
So let's summarize how we got here. The JCPOA, signed in July 2015, includes a 159-page agreement that is detailed on every aspect of Iran's nuclear program. It discusses centrifuges in 89 places, with such specifics as noting particular "excess centrifuges and infrastructure will be stored at Natanz in Hall B of FEP under IAEA continuous monitoring."
US President Donald Trump, who had opposed the deal on the 2016 campaign trail, refused to certify that Iran was complying with it in October 2017. The US withdrew from the nuclear deal on May 8, 2018. In August 2018, the US unrolled sanctions as part of its "maximum pressure" campaign, prohibiting Iran's purchase of US currency and precious metals. Other sanctions targeted Iran's economy. On November 5, 2018, the US re-imposed sanctions on Iran that had been waived under the deal, including the energy sector, with the intention of reducing Iran's oil exports to zero. The sanctions also targeted 700 individuals, aircraft and vessels.
The US has upped its sanctions consistently throughout 2019. In March, the US sanctioned Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a militia in Iraq linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the US then sanctioned in April. In June, the US targeted an Iranian petroleum company.
On June 24, the US sanctioned Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei's office and eight senior Iranian commanders linked to the IRGC. On June 12 and 29, the US sanctioned an Iraqi company linked to the IRGC. On July 18, the US sanctioned four Iraqis linked to Iranian-backed militias.
In early August, the US sanctioned Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif. In late August, the US sanctioned networks related to the IRGC. It also sanctioned and sought warrants against the tanker Grace 1, which Iran had renamed in an attempt to move the tanker toward Syria. In early September, the US sanctioned Iran's space program, days after Trump tweeted a photo on August 31 of Iran's failed rocket launch. On September 4, the US sanctioned 16 entities, 11 ships and 10 people related to Iran's tanker trade.
Iran's response to all this has also been incremental. In August 2018, Iran threatened to leave the nuclear deal if its interests were not secured. The idea was to pressure the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany to work more closely with Iran. In addition, Iran sought and received backing from the 28-country European Union, which sought to allay Iran's concerns in the fall of 2018. Iran had also threatened to leave the non-proliferation treaty in 2018 if it didn't get what it wanted. "Not a single word will be added or removed from the agreement," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in April 2018, before the US even left the deal.
Iran waited a year for May 2019 to roll around and then said it would resume high level uranium enrichment. Rouhani said the remaining five countries in the JCPOA deal must protect Iran's interests in the oil and banking sectors. He gave the UK, France and Germany, as well as Russia and China, 60 days to do something to shield Iran's economy. On May 8, Rouhani also said that Iran would stop observing the 3.67% limit on enrichment of uranium. Tehran also indicated it would stop selling surplus heavy water, and go beyond the 300 kg. limit on enriched materials. In July, Iran said it wanted European countries to buy Iranian oil using a system called INSTEX designed to circumvent US sanctions.
Iran wanted more actions from Europe in 60 days.
All that the European countries seemed to come up with was a surprise invitation to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to appear at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France. More talk, not much action. So on Saturday, Iran again said it is increasing its enrichment and playing a nuclear game of diplomatic chicken with centrifuges.
Iran's game plan here is total transparency. It now believes it has a right to develop whatever it wants with its extensive nuclear program. The JCPOA deal had envisioned that for 15 years much of this technology would be set aside, waiting to come out. Instead of 15 years, it seems that the international community got about four years.
The larger context is that the US and its allies are more concerned now about Iran's other actions, such as its ballistic missile program and the IRGC, as well as Iran's role in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. That doesn't mean the nuclear program doesn't matter. A New York Times piece published this weekend looked deeply at Israel's concerns over the last decades regarding the nuclear program and US attempts to prevent any kind of strike on Iran's nuclear program. In recent weeks, Israel said it struck an IRGC "killer drone" team in Syria and has warned about Hezbollah's precision missile program which is backed by Iran.
Iran's game plan on the international stage is one layer of its role in the region. It wants to use the centrifuges and enrichment to bypass US sanctions. It says it doesn't want nuclear weapons. But it wants a path to get to them and a way to get around US sanctions.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen, 2019). He is the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.