￼President Hassan Rouhani says Iran will stop complying with some parts of nuclear deal
Kim Hjelmgaard , Deirdre Shesgreen | USA TODAY
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Iran’s president announced Wednesday that the would stop complying with two provisions in the nuclear accord it signed with world powers.
Hassan Rouhani said Iran would reduce its compliance with the 2015 deal in response to new restrictions imposed by the Trump administration, part of a broader U.S. campaign to ratchet up economic and military pressure on Tehran. Iran’s declaration came on the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
Rouhani said Iran will keep excess low-enriched uranium and “heavy water” from its nuclear program inside the country – as opposed to selling it internationally – in a move that effectively amounts to a partial breach of the deal.
The Trump administration said last week it would sanction any country or business that purchased those products from Iran.
Rouhani set a 60-day deadline for new terms to the nuclear accord, absent negotiations with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the European Union. He said that if those terms aren’t met, Iran will resume higher uranium enrichment, the process that creates nuclear fuel.
“We felt that the nuclear deal needs a surgery, and the painkiller pills of the last year have been ineffective,” Rouhani said in a nationally televised address. “This surgery is for saving the deal, not destroying it.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was in Moscow, tweeted, “After a year of patience, Iran stops measures that U.S. has made impossible to continue.” Zarif warned that world powers have “a narrowing window to reverse this.”
American officials on Wednesday slapped yet more economic penalties on Iran. The White House announced sanctions aimed at blocking Iran from exporting iron, steel, aluminum and copper, which it said were the regime’s largest non-petroleum-related sources of export revenue.
Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran and senior policy adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said Iran intends to expand its nuclear weapons program. “That is in defiance of international norms and yet another attempt by the regime at nuclear blackmail,” he said.
Experts said Iran’s move is a relatively soft counterpunch to the Trump administration’s intense campaign to isolate the regime politically and economically. Some suggested the Trump administration’s policies seem designed to achieve this exact escalation.
“This was pretty predictable,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the Crisis Group, a nonpartisan group focused on preventing conflict.
“The U.S. has tried to bring Iran to its knees with its maximum pressure campaign in a minimum amount of time, and for about a year, the Iranians demonstrated restraint and remained committed to their obligations under the nuclear deal,” he said.
“But they have increasingly less to lose because the U.S. sanctions have effectively deprived them of all the benefits that the nuclear deal promised,” Vaez said.
Vaez said Iran’s response was “cleverly devised” to shift the blame to the Trump administration “because the U.S. last week basically rendered it illegal or a sanctionable act for any country to buy the excess … heavy water and low-enriched uranium.”
Others echoed that assessment and said Iran’s announcement did not necessarily signal a desire by the regime to become a nuclear-armed nation.
“I think we should be very careful about assuming that Iran stepping away from the JCPOA means stepping closer to the bomb,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, a dual American Iranian national who runs a news and research agency focused on Iran’s economy. He noted that Iran is still a party to an international nuclear nonproliferation treaty and has not seriously pursued a nuclear weapons program for over a decade.
“So far, Iran remains committed to the deal, and we should not trap ourselves in a deal/bomb binary,” said London-based Batmanghelidj.
The Pentagon redirected aircraft bombers and a carrier strike group to the Middle East, citing intercepted intelligence indicating that Iran or its proxies in the region might be preparing attacks on American military troops and facilities.
Last month, Trump designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, an elite wing of the nation’s military that also plays a large economic role, a terrorist organization.
The economic sanctions the White House has imposed since withdrawing from the nuclear deal officially target Iran’s government and industries but they have also hindered Iranians’ access to essential medicines and consumer products.
Pompeo took an unscheduled trip to Iraq on Tuesday where he met with Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and briefed Iraqi officials on the “increased threat stream that we had seen” from Iranian forces.
“We talked to them about the importance of Iraq ensuring that it’s able to adequately protect Americans in their country,” Pompeo said.
“I think everyone will look at the Iranian decision and have to make their own assessment about how much increased risk there is,” he said.
There are about 5,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq.
America’s top diplomat gave an address Wednesday in London where the topic of rising tensions between the United States and Iran came up again.
“They take hostages and repress their own people. I urge the U.K. to stand with us to rein in the regime’s bloodletting and lawlessness, not soothe the Ayatollahs angry at our decision to pull out of the nuclear deal,” Pompeo said in Britain’s capital.
President Barack Obama, whose administration negotiated the nuclear deal, sought to block Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons through diplomacy. The Trump administration, by contrast, has not been shy in its preference for a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran and has cut off all contact with the regime.
Vaez said Iran’s announcement was a measured response and designed “mostly to serve as leverage in order to compel the remaining parties in the deal to throw Iran an economic lifeline in the face of U.S. sanctions.”
European signatories to the nuclear accord have attempted to stay in the nuclear agreement by establishing a financial mechanism, known as INSTEX, intended to help them circumvent U.S. sanctions, but it has not been fully implemented.
Animosity between the United States and Iran stretches back decades to when the CIA helped install a dictator as Iran’s leader in 1953. A hostage crisis in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran coincided with the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton say confronting Iran is key to achieving peace and security in the Middle East, and both men are among Iran’s fiercest critics in Washington. Bolton was instrumental in advocating for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
They provided few details about the nature of the threat that led to the sending of a carrier strike group and bomber task force to the Persian Gulf. Iran-backed militias killed 608 U.S. soldiers in Iraq from 2003-2011, according to the Pentagon. Tehran is regularly accused of being the largest state sponsor of terrorism, but the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has repeatedly verified that the regime has adhered to the 2015 nuclear pact – even after the U.S. departure last May.
“The (nuclear deal) is doing what it was designed to do: preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. As such, the deal is too important to be allowed to die,” the directors of 18 foreign affairs think tanks and research institutes wrote in a joint letter published Wednesday as Iran signaled that the accord could totally unravel.
“I’m deeply worried that the Trump administration is leading us toward an unnecessary war with Iran,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in a statement late Tuesday. “Let me make one thing clear: The Trump administration has no legal authority to start a war against Iran without the consent of Congress.”
Batmanghelidj said, “Iranians perceive something deeply vindictive about the way the Trump administration is treating their country.”
That doesn’t mean that people are growing more supportive of the Islamic Republic.
“It is possible to be dismayed with both the U.S. government and their own government,” he said.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook