Iran’s decision Wednesday to halt its compliance with elements of the landmark nuclear deal immediately escalates the crisis between Tehran and Washington, but the real flash point could come early this summer when Iran threatens to take a major step toward acquiring weapons-grade material.

In announcing Iran’s partial break with the nuclear accord, President Hassan Rouhani set a 60-day deadline to get relief from punishing sanctions, promising to resume enriching uranium to a higher level than now allowed under the treaty if his demand goes unmet.

While Iran’s dispute is with the United States, which abandoned the nuclear treaty a year ago, Rouhani’s pledge puts European nations squarely in the middle of the standoff by insisting they defy the U.S. embargo on Iran. Europeans may now determine what course history takes in the Middle East.

AD
AD

European nations will be forced to choose between their desire to preserve an accord that has severely limited Iran’s nuclear capabilities since it was signed in 2015 and growing U.S. pressure to impose complete economic and political isolation on Tehran.

Tensions were already spiking this week with heightened U.S. military pressure on Iran, including the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group and bomber task force to the Middle East. U.S. officials say the move came in response to intelligence showing Tehran was planning to attack American interests in the region.

Then, hours after Rouhani’s remarks, the Trump administration issued new sanctions targeting Iran’s metal exports. The new sanctions, included in an executive order signed by President Trump, apply to Iranian iron, steel, aluminum and copper.

AD
AD

The nuclear accord that Iran signed with the United States and other great powers had lifted U.S. and international sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. Since the U.S. withdrew, fulfilling a signature promise of Trump’s presidential campaign, the administration has designated nearly 1,000 Iranian individuals and entities for sanctions and is trying to drive the country’s oil revenue down to “zero.”

But even as its economy has cratered, Iran has continued to meet its commitments made in the nuclear deal, according to inspections made by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

European leaders have tried for a year to scrape together incentives for Iran that could shield it from some of the pain of the U.S. sanctions. But their flagship effort — a complicated investment entity intended to bypass some U.S. financial restrictions — has failed to deliver. Most European companies have pulled out of Iran, calculating that the cost of U.S. wrath is far greater than any profit possible from trade with Tehran.

AD
AD

European diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss their assessments of Rouhani’s announcement, offered no new concessions that might bolster Iran’s economy. They said European foreign ministers would discuss a response at a previously scheduled meeting on Tuesday.

European officials say Iran needs to sell between 1 million and 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to sustain its economy, and they estimate it is currently selling 700,000. They hope China and India will increase their oil purchases to get the deal back on track because European companies are unlikely to do so.

But the 28 members of the European Union are themselves divided about how to navigate the breach between Washington and Tehran, diminishing the likelihood they will agree on any bold new plans. The disagreements were on display on Wednesday, as diplomats haggled with each other about an E.U.-wide response to the Iranian move but failed for the time being to issue even a basic written statement.

AD
AD

In his televised speech, Rouhani insisted Iran was keen to remain fully compliant with the deal and blamed European countries for capitulating to U.S. sanctions that have strangled Iran’s oil and banking sectors as well as its foreign trade.

“We are ready to negotiate, within the boundaries of JCPOA,” he said, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. “It is not us who has left the negotiation table.”

Rouhani stressed that Iran’s new posture toward the nuclear accord is intended to spur negotiations rather than confrontation and that Tehran is growing impatient with maintaining its commitment to a deal that has provided little of its promised economic and political benefit.

AD

“We will not start breaching commitments and waging any war,” he said. “But we will not give in to bullying either.”

AD

Rouhani said Iran is preparing to partially break with the treaty by holding on to stockpiles of excess uranium and heavy water used in nuclear reactors. More ominously, he said that if Iran’s terms are not met within 60 days, it would move to increase ­uranium enrichment above the 3.67 percent limit set by the treaty. Boosting enrichment to
a higher level could reduce
the time needed to produce ­weapons-grade material.

The steps announced by Rouhani came after speculation that Iran would take a more provocative approach, including fully exiting the accord or moving immediately to higher uranium enrichment.

AD

“The Iranians certainly tried to find the mildest first step here, which would both pressure the Europeans and appease their domestic constituents without provoking a strong reaction from the U.S. and angering the Russians too much,” Ariane Tabatabai, an associate political scientist at the Rand Corp., said in a text message.   

AD

But the Trump administration acted quickly to ratchet up the pressure with new sanctions.

In the past year, Iran exported $5.5 billion in products using the four targeted industrial metals, according to Iranian customs data analyzed by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The materials also are used in Iran’s ballistic missile program.

AD

In a statement, Trump said the newest sanctions target a sector that generates 10 percent of Iran’s export revenue.

“Tehran can expect further actions unless it fundamentally alters its conduct,” Trump said. “Since our exit from the Iran deal, which is broken beyond repair, the United States has put forward 12 conditions that offer the basis of a comprehensive agreement with Iran. I look forward to someday meeting with the leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement and, very importantly, taking steps to give Iran the future it deserves.”

AD

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has taken a hard-line position against the Iranian government, said the United States will be watching to see whether Iran takes steps that would reduce the “breakout time” required to amass enough material to build a nuclear weapon.

AD

Speaking at a news conference in London, Pompeo said the United States will work with Europeans “to ensure Iran has no pathway for a nuclear weapons system.”

Underscoring the significance of Iran’s move, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to Moscow and delivered a personal letter Wednesday from Rouhani to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tehran’s closest international ally.

Rouhani praised Moscow — also a signatory to the JCPOA — as a friend of Iran but said other participants in the deal have “failed to fulfill their obligations.”

AD

“You know, we’ve been patient for a year,” Zarif told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to a Russian translation of Zarif’s remarks.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Putin saw “no alternative” to the Iran nuclear deal, Russian news agencies reported. Peskov said the Trump administration’s “poorly conceived, reckless decisions” have led Iran to curtail its commitments.

“Russian diplomats will certainly continue to discuss this issue, including with European partners, in order to achieve the long-term sustainability” of the Iran deal, Peskov said.

European officials, however, warned that Iran risks further isolation and gave little indication that the 60-day deadline would spur them to further resist American policies.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned of serious consequences if Iran breaks its commitments under the deal.

“So we urge the Iranians to think very long and hard before breaking that deal,” he said. “It is in no one’s interest. It is certainly not in their interest. Because the moment they go nuclear, Iran’s neighbors will as well.”

Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Kareem Fahim in Istanbul, Quentin Ariès in Brussels and Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.