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Home > Publications > PISM Spotlights > PISM Spotlight: Iran’s Ultimatum Regarding the Nuclear Agreement

PISM Spotlight: Iran’s Ultimatum Regarding the Nuclear Agreement

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10 May 2019
Marcin Andrzej Piotrowski
no. 24/2019

On 8 May, Iran delivered to signatories of the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) a letter with demands for further implementation of its provisions. Iran’s letter includes a threat in the form of an ultimatum that it may remove limits on its nuclear programme and comes a year after U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to quit the agreement. 

What are Iran’s expectations of the other signatories of the JCPOA?

After the U.S. re-activated a set of sanctions and introduced newer ones, the government in Tehran is threatening not to honour some of the provisions of the JCPOA. It implies it will follow through with this threat if in 60 days France, Germany, and the UK do “not meet their commitments, especially in the banking and oil sectors.” Iran’s approach is the result of a noticeable increase in economic pressure by the U.S., the outflow of the biggest investors from Iran, and decreased income from Iranian oil exports. While the letter stresses that the time and space for diplomacy depend on meeting these commitments, it does not specify whether the ultimatum deadline will really pass with the beginning of July. 

Which JCPOA provisions does Iran want to stop observing?

Iran has declared it will cease to recognise the JCPOA’s limits on the level of uranium enrichment and design of its Arak reactor. It is unclear if the suspension means both the quantity and quality of uranium enrichment or only limits on the level of enrichment (Iran now has 300 kg of low-enriched uranium to a level of 3.67%). The letter also does not announce changes in the quantity and types of centrifuges used in its industrial uranium enrichment programme at the current stage. Equally unclear is the future of the redesigned Arak Heavy Water Reactor. It was originally designed as a 40 MW power plant, but after 2016 its core was removed and Iran maintained only 130 tonnes of heavy water. Abandonment of these limits may in the future make work much easier on the construction of nuclear warheads with highly-enriched uranium (to a level of 90-93%) as well as with warheads based on plutonium reprocessed from the Arak reactor.

Does the letter mean Iran may exit the agreement?

Iran stressed that its moves have been forced by U.S. policy and that any steps it takes will be gradual and reversible. Even implementation of the threat might not be equal to quitting the JCPOA or halting monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, based on the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPR). The detailed and technical provisions of both the JCPOA and NPT have multiple interpretations, so these give Iran a lot of flexibility with its next steps after the ultimatum deadline. Iran also has suggested the need to use the dispute resolution mechanism within the Joint Commission of the JCPOA. If dialogue collapses, it should be expected that there is a growing risk of Iran’s full withdrawal from the JCPOA and intensification of the crisis around the shape and purposes of the Iranian nuclear programme.

What is the current U.S. policy towards Iran?

At least at the rhetorical level, its determination is growing. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and presidential National Security Advisor John Bolton have declared a strategy of “maximum pressure,” an element of which is U.S. designation of the whole Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. Moreover, U.S. media are speculating that the Trump administration’s real goals are not so much to extract concessions from Iran but to provoke conflict and move forward with “regime change.” Although Bolton’s well-known opinions on Iran when he served in the George W. Bush administration and the strengthening of U.S. forces in the region both fit into such speculation, the risk of further escalation of the crisis is mitigated by the failure of the denuclearisation talks with North Korea, tensions between the U.S. and China and Russia, the crisis in Venezuela, as well as Democratic control of the House of Representatives. Moreover, there have been recent media reports of Trump distancing himself from his hawkish advisor Bolton’s opinions.  

What are the implications of Iran’s threat to the EU?

EU countries are declaring their willingness to continue their commitments under the 2015 nuclear agreement. They have criticized the Iranian ultimatum but like Iran also are suggesting the use of the JCPOA Joint Commission. Irrespective of the final results of talks in this formula, the Union should demonstrate to Iran all the potential consequences of withdrawal from the JCPOA and eventually from the NPT, especially the “snap back” provisions and the prospects for a new set of EU sanctions. On the other hand, all EU countries opposed to the escalation of tensions in the Middle East should also be clear with the U.S. about the risks entailed with any military “regime change” in Iran.