Iran Surpasses Another JCPOA Limit

Iran announced that it was exceeding another limitation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, upping the already tense situation in the Persian Gulf

In another step that is likely to ratchet up tensions in the already tense Persian Gulf region, Iran announced on Sunday that it had exceeded an important limitation placed on its nuclear research program by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and threatened further action in what seems to be an effort to convince European nations to assist it in evading the impact of American sanctions:

Iran said on Sunday that within hours it would breach the limits on uranium enrichment set four years ago in an accord with the United States and other international powers that was designed to keep Tehran from producing a nuclear weapon.

The latest move inches Iran closer to where it was before the accord: on the path to being able to produce an atomic bomb.

President Trump withdrew the United States from the accord last year and in May dealt a crippling blow to Iran’s economy by implementing sanctions intended to cut off its oil sales any where in the world.

In recent weeks, Tehran has retaliated by making deliberate but provocative violations of the accord as part of a carefully calibrated campaign to pressure the West into eliminating sanctions that have slashed the country’s oil exports and crippled its economy.

The steps Iran has taken are all easily reversible. Yet the new move Iran said it was taking on Sunday — to increase enrichment levels beyond the 3.67 percent purity that is the ceiling under the deal — is the most threatening.

Speaking at a news conference on Sunday in Tehran, the deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, said Iran would take additional steps over the limits of the accord in 60-day intervals unless international powers provide sanctions relief as detailed in the deal.

In violating the limits on uranium enrichment, Tehran still remains far from producing a nuclear weapon. It would take a major production surge, and enrichment to far higher levels, for Iran to develop a bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium, experts say. It would take even longer to manufacture that material into a nuclear weapon.

But for Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, who signaled in May that he would order the country’s engineers to cross both thresholds if Europe did not compensate Iran for American sanctions, the breach of the enrichment limit would be a watershed. He is betting that the United States will back away from crushing sanctions or that he can split European nations from the Trump administration, which the Europeans blame for setting off the crisis.

If he is wrong, the prospect of military confrontation lurks over each escalation.

“It is a back-to-the-future moment,” said Sanam Vakil, who studies Iran at Chatham House, a research institute in London. It has revived a vexing question that policymakers have grappled with for more than a decade:

Is there a permanent way to stop Iran from developing the capability to build a nuclear weapon?

In Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often vowed never to allow Iran to acquire such a weapon, a member of his security cabinet said Tehran’s announcement on Sunday means “it is brushing off the red lines that were agreed.”

“It has begun its march, a march that is not simple, toward nuclear weaponry,” the cabinet member, Yuval Steinitz, said in a television interview.

The foreign ministries of Germany and Britain — both signatories to the deal — each expressed extreme concern and urged Iran to reverse its steps but did not yet call for specific penalties against Iran.

The European strategy for the next few months, one senior diplomat involved in the discussions said, is to buy some time to defuse the crisis. There is no immediate urgency about starting the process for “snapback” sanctions — exercising provisions of the deal to punish Iran by swiftly restoring lapsed penalties.

European officials, led by the French, hope to begin some kind of negotiation process that would make that unnecessary. The Europeans largely view President Trump as the instigator of the nuclear deal’s demise.

In a phone conversation on Saturday seeking to head off a confrontation, President Emmanuel Macron of France had asked Mr. Rouhani to explore by July 15 whether a new negotiation was possible. Mr. Rouhani agreed, according to news reports, but said that “lifting all sanctions can be the beginning of a move between Iran and the six major powers.”

So far, Mr. Trump and his top aides have vowed to continue using “maximum pressure” to force Iran to return to the negotiating table and to accept more stringent restrictions. But some of those who had negotiated the last deal say that reaching another one may now be much harder.

The Trump administration “has discredited the very concept of negotiations, and it has strengthened the hand of those inside Iran who would argue that it is no use talking to the Americans because you can never trust them,” said Rob Malley, a former National Security Council official who helped negotiate the 2015 accord.

This announcement came just days after the Islamic Republic had announced that it had breached another limitation of the JCPOA, this one related to the quantity of enriched uranium that it could keep stockpiled. This limitation deals with the quality of the enriched uranium that would be stockpiled, taking it higher than the limits set by the agreement. It is worth noting that both limitations, while an important part of the agreement, are somewhat symbolic in that the amount and purity of the uranium that the Islamic Republic would be stockpiling going forward is still far below what it would need to actually make a bomb and even further short if what it would need to build a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Additionally, both steps are easily reversible if the Iranians decide to back away. At the same time, though, the fact that Tehran has decided to test the limits of the JCPOA just over a year after the United States withdrew from the agreement and reimposed sanctions is an indication that those sanctions are having an impact, that Iran is closer than ever to renouncing the agreement itself, and that tensions in the Persian Gulf are like to increase in the coming weeks and months.

As with the announcement made at the beginning of the month, it seems clear that Iran’s motivation for taking these actions is to attempt to provoke the Europeans into providing some relief from the sanctions that have been imposed by the United States, sanctions that have had a negative impact on Iran’s economy and on its ability to rely on oil revenue to generate hard currency and increase investment. For their part, the Europeans have been involved in behind the scenes negotiations to try to keep the JCPOA alive but have yet to take any moves that would be seen as an open rebuke of American policy toward Iran, in part over fears that European companies doing business with Iran could end up being hit with American sanctions themselves. The moves also seem to be at least in part aimed at trying to prod the United States to reverse course, as unlikely as that seems at the moment.

All of this is unfolding at the same time that tensions have been rising in the Persian Gulf region over the past several months. During that period, 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. Where we go from here is really anyone’s guess.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Iran, Iranian Nuclear Program, JCPOA, National Security, Politicians, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds 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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Paul L. says:

    So Iran actually breached the deal the whole time. They were supposed to get rid of the equipment needed to do this.

    So a repeat of North Korea and the Agreed Framework, GW Bush responsible for them getting Nukes.

  2. mattbernius says:

    I cannot wait for the rationalizations about how our breaching of the initial deal (i.e. withdrawing from it and attempting to pressure the other signatories to abandon it) was clearly justified by Iran breaching the deal that we breached first.

  3. mattbernius says:

    @Paul L.:

    They were supposed to get rid of the equipment needed to do this.

    Could you point out where in the agreement that was?

    As far as I can tell they agreed to get rid of their high enrichment equipment (which enriches at levels of 20% of higher). The equipment they were allowed to keep in the deal could go above the 3.67% the deal agreed to (a deal we breached first) but cannot get near the weapons enrichment range.

    In other words, they agreed not to use the existing equipment at it’s full capacity, however said full capacity isn’t capable of weapons grade enrichment (so that equipment wasn’t in violation of the deal).



  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Paul L.:
    You are now quoting Twitter trolls as sources?
    Your cult-leader violated the agreement. Everything that happens after that is on his hands, and the hands of his followers.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:
    Hey, do me a favor, could you let us know if you’re ever right about anything? I like novelty.

    You’re a flying insect, Paul, and reality is your windshield.

  6. mattbernius says:


    As far as I can tell they agreed to get rid of their high enrichment equipment (which enriches at levels of 20% of higher).

    I will note that they are threatening to start enriching at that level. However, let’s not forget that we breached the treaty over a year ago, so they have had plenty of time to start recreating that equipment and bringing it online.

  7. mattbernius says:

    @Paul L.:

    So a repeat of North Korea and the Agreed Framework, GW Bush responsible for them getting Nukes.

    Not really. This had far stronger inspection and verification criteria, which was of course completely undercut by our breach of the contract.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Today, July 8, 2019, Iran exceeded the limits on uranium stockpiling.

    That would not be the case had Trump not abrogated the treaty. That is undeniable fact.

    Yet another Trump-manufactured crisis he has no idea how to cope with and will likely end with some limp face-saving stand-down. Just like North Korea. Just like NAFTA. Just like the wall. Just like ‘Trumpcare.’ Just like TPP where we’re still waiting on that much, much better Trump deal which will be along any day…week…year now.

    He loudly blows shit up and when he’s done blowing shit up he pretends it’s a victory and the morons all cheer. I took a shit on the living room floor! Now I stopped taking shits on the living room floor! Praise me!

  9. Teve says:

    Friend of mine just said that on hour one of hannity’s radio show today hannity claimed that so long as Trump is President neither Iran nor North Korea will get nukes.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Paul L.: AHA! trump was right! Those evil backstabbing double crossing Iranians were planning to breach the deal right from the git/go! They were just waiting for an excuse! Good thing trump saw thru their evil plans and stabbed them in…. I mean withdrew from the deal first, otherwise we’d be playing catch up!

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Teve: Heh. Hannity is not too bright.

  12. Kathy says:

    For context, a level of 3.7% U235 is below the mid-end of what’s used for light water reactors, and under one fifth of the low-end concentration required for a weapon.

    So while this is definitely not good at all, it’s far from a crisis.

  13. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    @Paul L.: Sing along with me, Paul:

    This is what we’ve waited for
    This is it, boys this is war
    The President is on the line
    As 99 red balloons go by
    99 dreams I have had
    In every one, a red balloon
    It’s all over and I’m standing pretty
    In this dust that was a city…

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    neither Iran nor North Korea will get nukes.

    Based on what I’ve heard for the past couple of… 10 years, that horse has already jumped the fence in NK.

  15. Teve says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: you probably listen to the fake news lamestream media.

  16. Andy says:

    This isn’t that big of a deal. It’s LEU and it’s still under IAEA controls and monitoring. This is simply Iran signaling.

  17. David M says:

    That assumes there are responsible adults in the Trump Administration capable of receiving those signals. So in that context, this is probably worse than it should be

  18. Paul L. says:

    @michael reynolds:

    could you let us know if you’re ever right about anything

    No Russia Collusion.
    I was told be you that the Cohen raid gave Mueller the taped evidence that proved Donald Trump personally committed treason by colluding with Russia.
    Want the link again?

  19. michael reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:
    Sure, I want the link where I said as a statement of fact not speculation that “the Cohen raid gave Mueller the taped evidence that proved Donald Trump personally committed treason by colluding with Russia.”

    And Trump has not been cleared of collusion until you can answer the simple question that @Guarneri is so frightened of: Why does Trump refuse to have any other American present when he meets with Putin? Answer that plausibly. I dare you.

    Where an investigation has been obstructed there can be no finding of innocence as to the original crime. That’s one of the reasons we make obstruction illegal. That’s why innocent people don’t obstruct – guilty ones do.

  20. Paul L. says:

    @michael reynolds:

    That’s why innocent people don’t obstruct – guilty ones do.

    Invoking your 4th/5th/14th amendment rights to be silent is considered obstruction to Law Enforcement.

    By the way, here’s a nice lollipop for you two to suck on: the Feds and the NY State AG both now have the evidence … We have reached the Nixon Tapes moment, the tipping point, when it is too late.

  21. mattbernius says:

    @Paul L.:
    Hey, I was wondering if you’ve found any links to support your original claim? If you have the sources to back up the assertion in that tweet, I’d really be interested in seeing them.

  22. Paul L. says:

    I remember how this was portrayed as the only thing stopping Iran from making a nuclear bomb.
    Iran sticks to deadline of nuclear deal with centrifuge move: IAEA

  23. mattbernius says:

    @Paul L.:
    Ok, so you don’t have anything to back up that claim. Because, again, 4% enriched isn’t weapons grade and the equipment used to enrich to that non-weapons level was still ok in terms of the treaty.

    And you keep leaving out the part where we breached the treaty first. So Trump gave Iran carte blanche to take these steps.

    Thanks for that confirmation about the emptiness of your argument Paul.

  24. michael reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:
    Trump did not ‘invoke his rights,’ he ordered government employees to lie and to stonewall, and he accused the FBI of running a bogus investigation and he fired the head of the FBI, admitting he did so because of Russia. BTW, given how many Trumpies are in jail or on their way, obviously the witch hunt idea doesn’t hold up.

    And: Mueller explicitly refused to clear Trump of obstruction.

    As for:

    I was told be you that the Cohen raid gave Mueller the taped evidence that proved Donald Trump personally committed treason by colluding with Russia.

    Is not:

    By the way, here’s a nice lollipop for you two to suck on: the Feds and the NY State AG both now have the evidence. Do you understand what that means? It doesn’t disappear even if Mueller does. It’s too late for Trump to fire Mueller and have it work. We have reached the Nixon Tapes moment, the tipping point, when it is too late. You’re not getting it (what a shock) but it is too damn late.

    What I said was that firing Mueller could no longer stop the investigation, I did not say that Cohen gave Mueller evidence that proved Trump personally committed treason. Which of course is why after threatening to post a link, you failed to do so, because in context it’s obvious that I did not say what you claimed.

    So that’s another lie from you @Paul.

  25. michael reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:
    And I note that just like your gutless, dishonest fellow travelers Guarneri and JKB you refuse to even try to answer my question. You’re that scared of it. That is your admission that you are lying to yourself as well as to us.

  26. Paul L. says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Ok, I’ll play
    “Feds and the NY State AG both now have the evidence.”
    Evidence of what? If not “taped evidence that proved Donald Trump personally committed treason by colluding with Russia.”

  27. michael reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:
    The discussion was whether firing Mueller would kill the investigation. I said no, because whatever Cohen had supplied was now on the record. I’m pretty careful about what I write, why don’t you try for equal rigor when reading?