Iran announced today that it was giving France, Germany, Russia, China and the United Kingdom 60 days to meet commitments agreed to in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name given to the Iran nuclear deal, placing special emphasis on the banking and oil sectors. If these countries fail to meet their commitments, Iran said it will stop observing JCPOA restrictions on uranium enrichment and activities at the Arak heavy water reactor – which, according to the JCPOA, includes a prohibition on producing weapons-grade plutonium. Iran also said it is willing to resume its commitments if its demands are met but will reconsider additional JCPOA restrictions if they are not. In other words, Iran may restart its nuclear weapons program in two months, a process that Israeli intelligence believes would take roughly two years to complete.
At this point, Iran believes it has little other choice. It entered into the JCPOA in good faith, and indeed, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, it honored all of its commitments. Iran even maintained compliance after the United States withdrew from the JCPOA last year and issued new sanctions. The government in Tehran hoped that the JCPOA’s other participants would hold up their end of the bargain, allowing the Iranian economy to rejoin the global economy, if only partially. But the U.S. had made that difficult, too, by threatening to sanction any country that does business with Iran. On April 22, Washington said it would suspend waivers for countries that still import Iranian oil. France has apparently decided to follow suit, going so far as to threaten sanctions of its own if Iran does not agree to limit its ballistic missile program.
The Iranian government took a significant political risk when it signed on to JCPOA. Led by President Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian government agreed to place limits on its nuclear weapons program – seen by powerful interests like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as fundamental to its national security – so that it could sell Iranian oil unencumbered in global markets and encourage foreign investment. For the Rouhani-led government, securing this investment was crucial not just to improve Iran’s economy but to curb the power and influence of the IRGC, which now controls anywhere between 20 and 60 percent of the Iranian economy. Four years later, the Iranian economy is in tatters, and Rouhani’s opponents have all the political ammunition they need to move against him.
Iran can no longer afford to be the only country playing by the JCPOA’s rules. Rouhani’s decision to pursue the JCPOA was risky even with the attendant economic benefits that were supposed to accompany it – maintaining Iranian compliance with the JCPOA without any of those benefits would be political suicide. At this point, Iran’s last-ditch ultimatum is more about controlling the country’s global image than about changing the behavior of its participants. Iran will at least be able to say that it kept its promises until the bitter end, a point which may be useful in any future negotiations into which it enters. For its part, the United States has made it clear that sanctions are in the offing for any country that engages with Iran economically, and for the JCPOA participants – even China, one of Iran’s most important oil buyers – interacting with Iran is simply not worth the price of having the U.S. turn on them. (Saudi Arabia has claimed that it will provide additional supply to Iran’s prior customers, and may have up to 2.0-2.5 million barrels per day of spare capacity). No party to the JCPOA approves of what the U.S. is doing, but none are strong enough to do anything to stop it, and none has been willing to defy the U.S. by ensuring its survival.
Iran, then, has its back against a wall, and the IRGC’s argument – that a nuclear deterrent is necessary for Iran’s national security – appears increasingly more valid. Even the Rouhani administration might harbor secret hopes that a nuclear weapons program might generate the negotiating leverage necessary to get the U.S. to deal with Iran on a more pragmatic basis. The moment Iran entered into the JCPOA, it effectively lost its negotiating leverage with the United States. Iran’s nuclear weapons program brought the U.S. government to the negotiating table once; perhaps it will bring it to the table again. Considering Washington’s recent approach to North Korea – namely, face-to-face negotiations after North Korea started testing intercontinental ballistic missiles – it is not an unreasonable tactic to attempt. For Iran, the bigger problem is that it has no other tactics left to try. The U.S. has broken agreements and applied new sanctions, and now it has deployed a carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the region. Iran has to tip the balance here somehow, and the threat of resuming its nuclear weapons program is all it has.