(Bloomberg) -- The economic pain inflicted by President Donald Trump’s sanctions on Iranian oil exports was widely blamed for prompting Tehran’s threat last week to gradually roll back its compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
But it was a U.S. decision in early May to revoke two waivers critical to the Islamic Republic’s enrichment activities that left it with a stark choice: either submit to Washington’s will and stop all uranium enrichment, or abandon some of its obligations under the landmark accord -- and risk a rupture with European signatories.
A year after Trump walked away from the nuclear deal and with President Hassan Rouhani under pressure from hardliners who see the nuclear program as a totem of Iranian sovereignty, there was only way Iran was likely to go.
What exactly did Trump end?
The U.S. extended, for 90 days, five waivers that allowed Iran to engage in nonproliferation activities and nuclear research at three sites -- Fordow, Bushehr and Arak -- without facing sanctions. But it revoked two others enabling Iran to send surplus heavy water to Oman and to ship out any enriched uranium that exceeds a 300 kilogram limit in exchange for natural, or “yellowcake” uranium.
The revocations undermined Iran’s ability to dispose of its excess heavy water and enriched uranium, forcing it to choose between violating its obligations on the storage of those materials or stopping all enrichment, as the U.S. wants.
How has the 2015 deal worked so far?
The nuclear accord capped Iran’s nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. The agreement, the signatories said, would prevent Tehran from building the nuclear weapons that some western powers and Israel feared were the end goal of its atomic program.
Under the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran is allowed to maintain some 5,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium to low levels for civilian purposes. It mothballed thousands of other centrifuges and turned Fordow, a former mountainside enrichment site, into a research center. The deal also called for the modernization of Iran’s heavy-water reactor so it couldn’t produce plutonium.
Iran opened up its facilities to intrusive visits by international inspectors in what’s been described by the International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano as “the most robust verification system in existence anywhere in the world.” The IAEA has repeatedly found that Iran’s sticking to its obligations.
Why is enrichment important for Iran?
The U.S. failed to persuade Iran to give up enrichment during two years of grueling diplomacy that led up to the 2015 deal. Billions of dollars in sanctions costs over the years, cyber attacks, and the assassination of some of its scientists and engineers hadn’t diminished the nation’s determination to continue enriching, according to a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report.
Iran says it needs 20 percent-enriched uranium to make medical isotopes and power research reactors. But beyond this, Tehran sees its place among one of about a dozen countries enriching uranium as evidence of its technical savvy and independence 40 years after the Islamic revolution.
Skeptics say Iran wants to retain the option of diverting its civilian nuclear program toward developing atomic weapons, a goal Iran denies ever having. If it did build a bomb, regional rivals led by Saudi Arabia have pledged to do likewise, setting off an arms race in an already volatile region.
What might happen next?
Iran has given three European parties to the nuclear deal -- the U.K., France and Germany -- 60 days to present an effective plan that protects banking and trade with Iran from U.S. sanctions.
But European efforts so far have come up short and that’s unlikely to change before the deadline expires. If Iran decides to carry out its threats to resume higher levels of enrichment than are allowed under the accord, European partners will come under intense pressure to withdraw their support for the nuclear deal. That would spell the end of an agreement that was hard won through years of multi-lateral negotiations.
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