Iran Passes Limits On Uranium Enrichment Set By JCPOA

Just over a year after the United States repudiated the JCPOA, Iran has surpassed a limit on uranium enrichment set by the JCPOA

In a move that was perhaps inevitable in the wake of President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last year, Iran has reportedly exceeded a key limit imposed by that treaty on the levels of its processed uranium stockpile:

WASHINGTON — Iran has exceeded a key limitation on how much nuclear fuel it can possess under the 2015 international pact curbing its nuclear program, effectively declaring that it would no longer respect an agreement that President Trump abandoned more than a year ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Monday.

The breach of the limitation, which restricted Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium to about 660 pounds, does not by itself give the country the material to produce a nuclear weapon. But it is the strongest signal yet that Iran is moving to abandon the limits and restore the far larger stockpile that took the United States and five other nations years to persuade Tehran to send abroad.

The developments were first reported by the semiofficial Fars news agency, citing an “informed source.” Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister of Iran, was later quoted confirming the news, according to another semiofficial outlet, the Iranian Students’ News Agency, or ISNA.

The report from Fars said that representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency determined last week that Iran had passed the threshold, and a spokesman for the agency said on Monday that it had confirmed that the stockpile had surpassed the limit laid out in the deal.

It was unclear how much the action would escalate the tensions between Washington and Tehran after the downing of an American surveillance drone in June nearly resulted in military strikes.

But it returns the focus to Iran’s two-decade pursuit of technology that could produce a nuclear weapon — exactly where it was before President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran struck their deal four years ago.

While the Trump administration had no immediate reaction to the announcement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month that the United States would never allow Iran to get within one year of possessing enough fuel to produce a nuclear weapon. His special envoy for Iran, Brian H. Hook, has often said that under a new deal, the United States would insist on “zero enrichment for Iran.”

Iran has so far rejected beginning any negotiation, saying that the United States must first return to the 2015 agreement and comply with all of its terms.

“Now the inevitable escalation cycle seems well underway,” Philip H. Gordon, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Obama administration national security official, wrote in an article this spring for Foreign Affairs magazine shortly after Mr. Rouhani telegraphed that he intended to walk away from the deal’s restrictions. Iran was on a “slippery slope” to fully pulling out of the agreement, Mr. Gordon added.

On June 28, after meeting in Vienna with European officials who had promised to set up a barter system with Iran to compensate for the effects of American sanctions that Britain, France and Germany say are unwise, Iranian officials said the effort was insufficient. Mr. Hook has estimated the sanctions have cost Iran $50 billion in lost oil sales, far more than the system the Europeans are putting in place would generate.

As they left the meeting, Iranian officials hinted that the breaking of the limit would go forward, though it could just as easily be reversed in the future.

For now, however, Iran seems on a pathway to step-by-step dissolution of key parts of the accord. Mr. Rouhani has said that Iran will begin raising the level of uranium enrichment this month.

It is possible that exceeding the stockpile limit is largely a negotiating tactic, a way for Tehran to impose costs on Washington after enduring more than a year of sanctions. But the move is risky. Mr. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who negotiated the deal with the secretary of state at the time, John Kerry, are betting that the Europeans will declare that Mr. Trump, not Iran, is responsible for the collapse of the nuclear accord.

That may prove the case. European officials, in their most vivid split from Mr. Trump, are scrambling to preserve the agreement, fearful that if it falls apart, the United States and Iran could be headed toward military conflict — and perhaps war.

On some level, this was an inevitable move on Iran’s part. The American decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and begin reimposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic has, inevitably, had a severely negative impact on the Iranian people and the economy, and has made it difficult to conduct business even with nations that aren’t going along with the United States. It has also served to reinforce the position of the radicals in the Iranian government who, in opposition to President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister  Mohammed Javad Zarif, have been opposed to the JCPOA from the beginning. These forces have spent the last year pointing to the Trump Administration’s position to support the arguments they made leading up to the agreement that the United States cannot be trusted to live up to its agreements.

In the wake of the Trump Administration’s move, there have been efforts by some of the other signatories to keep the agreement together. This has been especially true regarding the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, whose governments oppose the American decision to withdraw from the agreement and have spent the past year attempting to convince the Iranians to stay in compliance with the agreement. Now that Iran has breached a key part of the agreement itself, these nations will no doubt be under new pressure from the United States to follow the American lead in repudiating the agreement and reimposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic notwithstanding the fact that those sanctions are unlikely to work.

All of this, of course, is happening just as tensions have risen significantly in the Persian Gulf. Over that time, we’ve seen Iran shoot down a reconnaissance drone that it says was in Iranian airspace and which the United States says was over international waters. In response to that and to recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman that the United States has blamed on Iranian forces, President Trump first ordered and then canceled a retaliatory strike on Iranian forces. Then, the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran in response to the heightening of tensions in the Persian Gulf. As noted at that point, though, those sanctions were unlikely to work and the Trump Administration has very few options in the regions.

This latest move by Iran, while understandable, is likely to increase these tensions, and to lead the Trump Administration to try to persuade the Europeans to reimpose sanctions on Iran. At the same time, though, it’s possible that this move, which could be easily reversed by the Islamic Republic by agreeing to turn over its excess processed uranium as called for under the agreement, could be a step by Iran to try to get something more out of the other signatories to the JCPOA to offset the American sanctions. This is what happened earlier this year when Iran technically surpassed the JCOPOA limits regarding heavy water only to pull back from the brink after getting some concessions from European JCPOA signatories. On the other hand, it’s also possible that this could be another step in the uptick in tensions, which increases the danger that things could easily spin out of control very quickly.

It’s important to note at the start that this development does not mean that Iran has formally repudiated the JCPOA in the same way that the United States has. Instead, this is likely to lead to the start of the dispute resolution process under the agreement, which would give the remaining signatories and the Iranians time to reach some sort of agreement that would satisfy Iranian concerns about the impact of the sanctions that they United States has imposed against it. That being said, this is hardly good news either, especially in the context of everything else happening in the Persian Gulf region.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. David M says:

    It’s worth noting that one of the actions the Trump Administration took was to prevent Iran from shipping the enriched uranium out of the country. So they could either stop enrichment, or exceed the cap.

    I’m not sure why the GOP wants Iran to stockpile enriched uranium, but that’s where we are.

  2. Slugger says:

    Iran has a GDP that is ten times the size of North Korea. The Norks got nukes, and the POTUS has three times gone to their part of the world to talk to Kim, most recently walking twenty steps while Kim stood there with a smile. Iran hasn’t developed nukes as yet even though as Netanyahu has pointed out it would take a few months to do so. Iran hasn’t developed nukes because they didn’t want to. We are now giving them good reasons to do it.

  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Let’s review, shall we?
    Iran is closer to a nuke than when 45 became president.
    NoKo has more nuclear capability than when 45 became president.
    There is a humanitarian crisis at the southern border that was created by 45.
    The economy is solidly on the same trend line it has been on since long before 45 became president.
    So much winning…oh wait, that’s right, no winning…

  4. Moosebreath says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    So much whining.


  5. Kathy says:

    So the White House put out a statement.

    Ok, read this part again:

    There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms.

    How do you violate the terms of a treaty before the treaty exists?

  6. John says:

    @Kathy: perhaps by Iran walking to the treaty table with too much refined nuclear material and that the treaty was to LOWER their stockpile. No Congress there. I mean they had progress their stockpile instead.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:


    There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms.

    So much horseshit. It’s also true (obviously trump did not say it as he is incapable of such an artful obfuscation). Something tells me that whoever put forth that particular bit of word salad did so for a purpose: To step over the avg trumpaloon’s ability to comprehend simple English.

  8. Teve says:


    perhaps by Iran walking to the treaty table with too much refined nuclear material and that the treaty was to LOWER their stockpile. No Congress there. I mean they had progress their stockpile instead.

    gonna need a rewrite on this.

  9. Gustopher says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: You think the average Trampaloon reads press statements? They aren’t the intended audience for this, not directly.

    I’m not sure that this press release has much purpose, other than an incompetent staffer has to release press releases, honestly.

    I assume we will go to war for Iran violating an agreement that we backed out of.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:


    You think the average Trampaloon reads press statements?

    You don’t think the not so avg FOX personality quotes press statements? Or do you think the avg trumpaloon doesn’t watch FOX personalities? I’ve heard plenty of stupid shit come out of TC’s and SH’s pie holes over the years, direct quotes, enough to wonder if they couldn’t figure it out either.

    Remember when Cheney would “leak” intelligence to Judith Miller, and she would then dutifully transcribe it into an article that Cheney would then quote as evidence of nefarious nuclear activities by the Iraqi’s? I know people who still believe the Iraqi’s were just days away from a nuclear weapon and shipped all their chemical weapon stockpiles to Syria right after the first bombs started dropping.

    You know how this game is played.

    ETA that “incompetent staffer” constructed one beautiful piece of obfuscation, something we don’t often see out of this admin. It uses the truth to obscure a larger truth. Whoever this nameless individual is, I tip my hat to them. Frank Luntz should be proud.

  11. Gustopher says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I’m pretty sure any truth was accident. “There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms” is just a nonsense statement. The deal did not have terms before it existed.

    I expect better from them. “Iran has violated the terms of its agreement with European nations, and has begun stockpiling enriched uranium. Since Europe cannot handle this, we may have to.”

    It gets a dig in at the Europeans being useless, and it completely ignores that we were once party to the agreement and that we are not abiding by the terms.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    And yet, I had no problem at all getting to the following interpretation

    There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was [already] violating its [proposed] terms.

    People read what they want. Tie a statement to a chair and beat it with a rubber hose and it will confess to anything–just like a statistic.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    Alain at Balloon Juice has a little explainer. Emphasis mine,

    Well, the problem regarding enriched Uranium is that, as Iran warned a few weeks back, since no one is buying that enriched Uranium that their nuclear program legally produces because of the sanctions, their stockpile is quickly building up. They don’t want it, they’d love to sell it, but that market is closed by the sanctions. So our sanctions are now causing Iran to violate the agreement.

    Lightly enriched uranium is a natural byproduct of their power reactors. They agreed to stockpile no more than 300 kg. To do this, they have to sell the excess. We reinstated sanctions, which makes it impossible for them to sell the stuff. It’s piling up and we won’t let them get rid of it. Insert Picard face palm here.

    This nuclear stuff is a bit complicated to understand and explain, so the supposedly liberal MSM are doing what they do best, lazily stenographing official statements. Groucho said it best.