How the U.S. could respond to Iran's 1st breach of the nuclear pact

Iran's first breach of the nuclear deal doesn't rise to the level of a direct danger yet, proliferation experts say. But the White House appears to be dramatizing the non-compliance to pressure European powers to shun Tehran before a more significant violation can happen.

Tehran's move to enrich uranium likely a diplomatic play to gain economic support from Europe: analysts

This combination of two pictures shows U.S. President Donald Trump, left, on July 22, 2018, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Feb. 6, 2018. Iran announced on Monday it has breached the Iran nuclear accord's limits on stockpiling low-enriched uranium, after Trump withdrew from the deal last year. (Associated Press)

As far as violations of the Iran nuclear pact go, this may not be the one to panic about just yet.

Iran's first confirmed breach of the 2015 nuclear deal doesn't rise to the level of a direct danger, according to proliferation experts. But they say the White House appears to be dramatizing the non-compliance to pressure European powers to shun Tehran before a more significant violation can happen.

In its first major contravention of the deal since Washington first abandoned the agreement 14 months ago, Iran signalled its patience with European signatories to the accord has worn thin. It declared this week it has exceeded the limits for stockpiling low-enriched uranium.

Under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, Iran had agreed to restrict its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium — processed to 3.6 per cent concentration — to less than 300 kilograms. That's less than a third of the amount needed for a warhead. "Weapons-grade" uranium must be processed to 90 per cent concentration, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Analysts said the breach may be more symbolic than anything.

The sky won't collapse if Iran obtains 301 kilograms of uranium, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow and Iran analyst with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "But what this says is the regime is willing to puncture stockpile caps imposed on it."

A person, head to toe in white protective clothing, walks through a room filled with a complicated array of pipes and equipment.
In this 2005 file photo, an Iranian security official in protective clothing walks through part of the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the Iranian city of Isfahan. (Vahid Salemi/Associated Press)

Ben Taleblu is watching what could come next. The Iranians have suggested they could begin enriching beyond the 3.6 per cent purity level to 20 per cent as early as this weekend.

"What Iran is entertaining after July 7… is a gross violation of the nuclear deal," he said.

The White House issued a statement saying it remained committed to restricting Iran's enrichment of uranium "at any level."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran on Monday of using its nuclear program "to extort the international community and threaten regional stability." Unless Iran ceases its enrichment activities, he warned, "the economic pressure and diplomatic isolation will intensify."

The drum-beating about the extent of the nuclear threat, based on this breach, aligns with former Iran nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn's expectations.

"Initially, breaching the stockpile limits is not a big deal," said Einhorn, who has worked on nuclear proliferation issues during almost every U.S. administration since president Richard Nixon.

"But a more significant breach could come at the end of the 60-day period, around July 7. That's the truer test."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, arrives for a meeting with European foreign ministers in Brussels on May 13, 2019. European supporters of the Iran nuclear deal met with Pompeo to discuss ways to keep the pact afloat and analysts believe Tehran's latest moves are a play to gain support from European nations who back the agreement. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

That's because the two-month window was an ultimatum for remaining parties in the JCPOA to come to Iran's aid on sanctions relief for the country to continue adhering to the deal. Come Sunday, Iran could make good on its threat to increase the enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent.

"And once you get to 20 per cent, that enrichment work increases exponentially and is much of the enrichment work you'd need in order to get all the way to weapons-grade," Einhorn explained. "So that's a big leap towards 90 per cent."

The administration likely knows this is a greater threat than exceeding the stockpile limits, he said. Its strongest recriminations could be deployed then.

"They may save their powder for a week from now," Einhorn said.

Iran may have hinted at the motivations for its noncompliance on Monday when the country's foreign minister described the move as "reversible."

In this 2010 file photo, a worker rides a bike in front of the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, outside Bushehr, Iran. (Majid Asgaripour/Mehr News Agency via Associated Press)

That was echoed by Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington nonprofit that describes itself as an advocacy group representing Iranian Americans and supporting diplomacy with Iran. In an interview, Parsi said he believes the violation is meant to pressure the Europeans, as well as JCPOA signatories Russia and China, to help alleviate economic pressures Iran is facing.

"OK. So they've gone beyond 300 kilos," he said. "Do you know how easy it is to just ship 50 kilos out and be within the limit again? This has been designed not to destroy the agreement, but to save it."

For now, the quantities and the concentration of the nuclear material are benign enough.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman estimates it would take at least a year to process weapons-grade volumes capable of making a bomb, if Iran decided to pursue that course.

"They're a long way from sprinting towards a nuclear weapon," he said.

"I think it's a mistake by Iran, but it's not a proliferation crisis that they are suddenly on the verge of making a weapon."

That hasn't assuaged his fears about how the White House may choose to control the message. While JCPOA proponents have urged renewed dialogue for both sides to return to the deal, Countryman worries hawks such as U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton will find ways to ratchet up pressures to goad Tehran to lash out further "so that he can justify military action" against the regime.

White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, shown listening to U.S. President Donald Trump, has espoused hawkish views on Iran for years. Bolton was also a chief architect of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

"You can expect the White House and Mr. Bolton ... to present this as evidence that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program, which is not the case."

U.S. "maximum pressure" sanctions have already cut Iran's oil exports, a major source of revenues. Another key target of the Americans might be to persuade the Europeans to dismantle an innovative payments bartering system — a trade channel that became operational last week to blunt the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Last month, Trump said he called off preparations for a military strike against Iran at the 11th hour, after the downing of an unmanned U.S. drone. He told NBC News war would result in "obliteration like you've never seen before" for Iran.

But if the White House characterizes Iran's noncompliance as a transgression escalating a crisis, proponents of the nuclear deal say it's worth recalling how the crisis came to be. It was last May that Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in the first place.

"This is what happens when you leave something, which although imperfect, helps mitigate risk, without a back-up plan," Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran specialist with the RAND Corporation, tweeted on Monday.

"It's like burning your house down because it had some issues without even setting up a tent to live in."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong