Iran breaches key uranium enrichment limit in nuclear deal

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran on July 8 began enriching uranium to 4.5% U235, just breaking the limit set by its nuclear deal with world powers, while it is still seeking a way for Europe to help it bypass United States sanctions amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington.

Acknowledgment of the step by Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows that the Islamic Republic is trying to increase pressure on those still in the 2015 nuclear deal. It also comes just days after Iran acknowledged breaking the 661-pound limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile, another term of the nuclear deal.

Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels around 90%. At the 4.5% level, it is enough to power Iran’s Bushehr reactor, the country’s only nuclear power plant.

Kamalvandi hinted in a state TV interview that Iran might consider going to 20% enrichment or higher as a third step, if the material is needed and the country still hasn’t gotten what it wants from Europe. That would worry nuclear nonproliferation experts because 20% is a short technical step away from reaching weapons-grade levels. Kamalvandi also suggested using new or more centrifuges, which are limited by the deal.

Experts warn that higher enrichment and a growing stockpile could begin to narrow the one-year window Iran would need to have enough material for an atomic weapon, something Iran denies it wants. While the steps now taken by Iran remain quickly reversible, Europe so far has struggled to respond.

Even if Iran reached 90% enrichment, there is no evidence that it has the scientific and technological ability to develop an atomic bomb.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Iran appreciated the efforts of some nations to save the deal, but offered a jaded tone on whether Tehran trusted anyone in the negotiations. “We have no hope nor trust in anyone, nor any country, but the door of diplomacy is open,” Mousavi said.

The remaining signatories to the deal with Iran are Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said America has imple-mented the “strongest pressure campaign in history against the Iranian regime, and we are not done.” The U.S. has sent thousands of troops, an aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, and advanced fighter jets to the Middle East.

There are fears that a miscalculation in the crisis could explode into open conflict. President Donald Trump, who withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal over a year ago and re-imposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran, nearly bombed the country in June after Iran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone, allegedly over their territory.

On July 7, Trump warned that “Iran better be careful.” He did not elaborate on what actions the U.S. might consider but told reporters, “Iran’s doing a lot of bad things.”

China, engaged in delicate trade negotiations with the White House, openly criticized Trump’s policy toward Iran.

“What I want to emphasize is that the maximum pressure the U.S. imposes on Iran is the root cause of the crisis in the Iranian nuclear issue,” said Geng Shuang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. “It has been proven that unilateral bullying has become a worsening tumor and is creating more problems and greater crises on a global scale.”

– edited from The Associated Press, July 8, 2019
PeaceMeal, July/August 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


New tensions with Iran threaten nuclear deal and, White House says, U.S. troops

Tensions escalated between the United States and Iran on May 6 when the Trump administration accused Iran and militias that it backs of threatening American troops, and Iran signaled it might soon violate part of the 2015 nuclear deal it reached under former President Barack Obama.

European diplomats in touch with senior officials in Tehran said Iran would most likely resume research on high-performance centrifuges used to produce nuclear fuel and put restrictions on nuclear inspections in Iran. It would be Iran’s most significant reaction to date as President Trump has steadily increased sanctions.

Three senior United States officials cited new intelligence that Iran or its proxies were preparing to attack American troops in Iraq and Syria, leading the Pentagon to send an aircraft carrier strike force and Air Force B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf as a warning to Tehran. The officials would not provide specific details about the threat posed by Iranian forces or Iraqi Shiite militias with ties to Tehran’s military.

A Pentagon spokesman, Charles E. Summers, said the carrier deployment “ensures we have the forces” in the region to “defend” American troops and interests. He added: “We do not seek war with the Iranian regime.” However, the moves frightened some European allies.

Taken together, the moves by both sides have brought relations between Trump and Iran to a new low after a period of rapprochement that began in 2013 during the Obama administration.

The Trump administration has consistently sought to isolate Iran’s clerical government. A year ago, President Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal that was brokered with six other world powers, and in the last month alone moved to cut off Iran’s remaining oil exports and designated an Iranian military unit as a terrorist organization.

Iran’s suspension of some elements of the nuclear deal appeared to be a response to the aggressive American policies, which were underscored by the announcement of the carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln heading to the Gulf.

The move toward suspending some elements of the nuclear deal — although without withdrawing from it — was reported by European officials who have urged Iranian officials to avoid being provoked into overstepping its limits and reuniting the Western allies against Tehran.

Under the 2015 deal, Iran shipped roughly 97 percent of its nuclear fuel stockpile out of the country, and experts do not believe it has enough on hand to produce a nuclear weapon. Ever since the United States withdrew from the agreement, Iran has sought to walk a fine line between abandoning the deal and continuing to sell its oil to foreign buyers to support its struggling economy.

But in April, the Trump administration announced it would no longer suspend economic penalties against eight nations that were continuing to buy Iranian oil, including China, Japan and India. And in an interview in New York, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, said he was “under pressure every day” to abandon the deal, as Mr. Trump did.

The sanctions on Iran’s oil exports were escalated two weeks after the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps was placed on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations — the first time that the designation was given to an arm of another nation’s government. American intelligence and Defense Department officials had opposed the terror designation, concerned that Iran would similarly target or attack American troops and intelligence operatives in the region. Indeed, Iran responded by passing a law declaring all American forces in the Middle East as terrorists and labeling the United States government a state sponsor of terrorism.

John R. Bolton, the White House national security adviser, said in a statement on May 5 that deploying the aircraft carrier and bombers to the Persian Gulf was intended to warn Iran that the United States would respond forcibly to any aggression against American forces or interests in the region. Additionally, one official noted new concerns in waterways where Iranian maritime forces operate. But memories of the Iraq War and Mr. Bolton’s own long history of harsh rhetoric on Iran have left administration officials under pressure to produce evidence of the imminent threat. No one in the Trump administration stepped forward to make a specific case.

Earlier this year, Mr. Trump notably backed up assertions by Mr. Bolton that the 5,200 American troops currently in Iraq should stay there to “watch Iran.” Iraqi leaders quickly pushed back, saying they feared that the United States was trying to use its troop presence in Iraq to further its own goals of isolating Iran.

Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, noted that the Trump administration had yet to back up its claims that Iran is planning a new attack on American forces in the region. He pointed to a heightened but long-existing level of tension between the United States and Iran that had worsened since the Trump administration’s recent policy decisions.

There have been few, if any, specific threats over the last couple of years against American troops in Iraq from armed groups known as Popular Mobilization Forces, some of which are linked to Iran. There are some 30 armed groups in Iraq that are now part of the Iraqi security forces. Most of them were formed to help fight the Islamic State when the Iraqi Army collapsed in 2014, and some were trained and armed by Iran. Only a handful are ideologically close to the Iranian government. However, those that are do rail against the United States and its activities in the Middle East.

“We will not take off the clothes of war until we have cut off the head of the snake America, the factory and source of terrorism,” Akram Abbas al-Kaabi, the leader of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, said on May 6 after Mr. Bolton’s statement. The armed Iraqi group, which is close to Iran, was recently added to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Given Bolton’s long track record of exaggerating and manipulating intelligence to justify the use of force, the prospect of Iran engaging in a provocation that sparks a wider military confrontation is very real. Thousands of U.S. troops and Iranian- backed forces operate in close proximity to one another in Iraq, Syria, and the crowded waters of the Persian Gulf. In this volatile context, the scenarios for an intentional or inadvertent U.S.-Iran war are many.

There are currently no high-level lines of communication between Washington and Tehran to manage a crisis. And hard-liners on all sides seem to be looking for opportunities to escalate, rather than de-escalate, tensions.

Moreover, Trump is no longer surrounded by former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and other cooler heads. He is now surrounded by advisors like Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who both have long called for war against Iran.

Before matters spin out of control, it would be wise for the administration to dial back the rhetoric, open high-level channels with Tehran, and signal a willingness to start new negotiations. But there is zero prospect the administration will take this course. President Trump increased tensions on May 24 by saying that he would send 1,500 more troops and a dozen fighter jets to the Middle East in the coming weeks to counter the claimed threat of an attack by Iran — evidence that he is on a path toward war whether he realizes it or not.

– edited from The New York Times and Foreign Policy
PeaceMeal, May/June 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


IAEA says Iran adhering to terms of nuclear weapon deal

Iran has been adhering to a deal with world powers limiting its nuclear weapon program, the United Nations atomic watchdog said in February, as diplomatic wrangling continued over the future of the accord. The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran was still complying with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with global powers, under which Tehran drastically scaled back its nuclear weapon program in return for sanctions relief.

The IAEA’s latest report showed that, over the previous three-month period, Iran’s stock of heavy water had risen from 122.8 to 124.8 metric tonnes and that it held 163.8 kg (361 lb) of enriched uranium, up from 149.4 kg (329 lb) in November. Both levels are within the limits set by the JCPOA.

Concurrently, European nations rejected a call from Vice President Mike Pence to follow the United States lead in withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal. Israel, however, welcomed the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, claiming that Iran was harboring a secret nuclear warehouse.

In January, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano rejected pressure on the agency, saying, “If our credibility is thrown into question, and in particular, if attempts are made to micro-manage or put pressure on the Agency in nuclear verification, that is counter-productive and extremely harmful.”

Last May, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. That was followed by sweeping new sanctions on Iran in November. Trump’s own intelligence chiefs have contradicted him over the question of Iran’s adherence to the deal. In January, Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel told a Senate hearing that Iran was “technically” in compliance with the JCPOA.

The European Union — along with the European signatories to the deal, collectively known as the E3 — have been scrambling to find ways to keep the deal alive. They set up a special payments vehicle to bypass the U.S. sanctions. However, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the mechanism “falls short of the commitments by the E3 to save the nuclear deal.”

– edited from Agence-France Presse, February 22, 2019
PeaceMeal, March/April 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


President Trump and Iran’s Rouhani clash at U.N.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani clashed sharply at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on September 25. Trump fired the first volley, repeating his administration’s contention that Iran is the world’s “leading sponsor of terrorism,” accusing it of sowing “chaos, death and destruction” across the Middle East. Rouhani later hit back saying Trump’s decision to impose more sanctions on Iran is a form of “economic terrorism,” accusing the U.S. administration of trying to topple his government.

Without naming Trump directly, Rouhani said some world leaders are undermining world security by their “recklessness and disregard of international values and institutions.” Shunning multilateralism signals an “inability in understanding a complex and interconnected world,” Rouhani said.

In May, the Trump administration pulled out of the historic 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action involving the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia, designed to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

In August, the first round of U.S. sanctions were reimposed on Iran, and Trump promised that Iran would face more economic difficulties when the second round of sanctions targeting their energy sector comes back on November 5. This was done in spite of the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog, reported that Iran was in compliance with the nuclear agreement.

There was speculation whether the two leaders would meet in New York City after Trump said he would be willing to meet without preconditions. But Rouhani said in interviews that Iran would not be willing to hold talks with the United States until it decides to return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

– edited from BBC News and Al Jazeera
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)