Increasing pressure on European partners to live up its end of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday warned that his country will step up its enrichment of uranium to “any amount that we want” as of Sunday.
“Our advice to Europe and the United States is to go back to logic and to the negotiating table,” said a defiant Rouhani, according to the Associated Press.
“Go back to understanding, to respecting the law and resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. Under those conditions, all of us can abide by the nuclear deal,” he added.
President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) in May 2018, and reimposed a brutal series of oil and financial sanctions on Iran. He also threatened secondary sanctions on other signatories of the deal (France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and Germany) should they trade with or invest in the country.
While Rouhani and other Iranian officials continue to blame European countries for failing to come up with any meaningful way to circumvent U.S. sanctions, it’s worth noting that these statements also speak to a domestic audience of Iranians who are once again experiencing great hardship.
The sanctions have meant that a population of some 80 million are once again, effectively, cut off from the global economy — they can neither export their goods nor import what they need to fill store shelves or supply their manufacturing chain.
Banking sanctions mean they can’t transfer money to pay for their children’s tuition overseas, and Trump’s Muslim travel ban makes travel to the United States for almost any reason — academic fellowship, medical treatments, or family visits — impossible.
Rouhani’s comments on Wednesday also came on the 31st anniversary of the downing of Iran Air flight 655 by the U.S. Navy.
In 1988, the USS Vincennes crossed into Iranian waters in pursuit of Iranian speedboats said to be harassing commercial vessels in the area. The Vincennes fired on Iranian ships, and while in Iranian waters, mistook a Dubai-bound Iran Air flight for a fighter jet and shot it out of the sky, killing all 290 people on board.
For this, USS Vincennes Capt. William C. Rogers was later awarded the Legion of Merit award. Every year, on the anniversary of the attack, Iranians — including the families of those who were killed — throw flowers into waters of the Persian Gulf in mourning.
Rouhani’s comments are the latest in a series of statements from Iran, warning its allies that it is running out of patience. It abided by the enrichment limitations set by the JCPOA for a year after the United States violated it, and got nothing in return.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Agnes von der Muhll told reporters on Wednesday that “Putting (the deal) into question will only increase the already heightened tensions in the region.”
But to Iran, the JCPOA has been entirely one-sided, and it is now doubling-down on domestic interests and messaging.
Iran, which does not have a nuclear weapons program, has already said it needs 5% enrichment for its power plant in Bushehr — an enrichment limit that exceeds the 3.67% allowed under the JCPOA.
A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization in June said enrichment at 20% is useful for research at a reactor in Tehran (levels that can be used for medical purposes).
Enrichment at 90% is considered weapons-grade. Iran has already exceeded the 300-kilograms stockpile limits on low-enrichment uranium, which was inevitable given that the United States stopped granting waivers to countries to store Iran’s excess heavy water and enriched uranium.
Iran does not have a nuclear weapon. If it decided that it wanted to build one, experts have said that it would take a year for it to have enough material to build one bomb.
European partners in the JCPOA on Tuesday said they were “extremely concerned” by Iran’s breach of the deal, and Reuters reported that Israel is bracing for a military confrontation between the United States and Iran.
These moves come as the Trump administration has moved an aircraft carrier ship, along with bombers and fighter jets to the region, further escalating tensions with Iran, claiming it attacked oil tankers in the region and shot down a surveillance drone in international air space.
Iran has denied any involvement in the oil tanker attacks in May and June, and maintains that the unmanned U.S. drone it shot down was in Iranian air space.
Two weeks ago, Trump claimed he had ordered strikes on several Iranian military targets but aborted the mission 10 minutes prior to execution, opting instead for cyberattacks on Iranian military networks and sanctions on the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and several high-ranking military officers.
On Monday, the White House went so far as to claim that Iran had not complied with the terms of the deal “before its existence” — in other words, Iran was supposed to comply with a deal that had not yet been made.
This prompted a swift response from Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who simply asked, “Seriously?”
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) July 2, 2019
It’s unclear what this White House statement really means, but once the deal was struck, Iranian nuclear facilities started undergoing regular inspections by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency, which were deemed to be in compliance until Tehran recently exceeded the stockpile limits dictated by the deal.
Iran has maintained that its recent breach of the deal is “reversible” should European partners start to offer it sanctions relief.