The 2015 Iran nuclear deal is in the throes of collapse. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an international watchdog organization tasked with monitoring nuclear activities, announced two weeks ago that Iran is enriching uranium at its Fordow plant. Iran’s resumption of sensitive nuclear activities at Fordow is in direct violation of the 2015 accord, which mandated a 98 percent reduction of Iran’s uranium and low levels of enrichment in exchange for a cessation of sanctions. Iran complied with these restrictions until May 2019 when it began increasing enrichment.
The 2015 nuclear deal, officially termed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed by Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, the European Union, and China. This plan was formed to curb Iranian nuclear capabilities and, in exchange, provide respite from debilitating sanctions. However, since May 2019, Iran has incrementally increased enrichment.
Iran's Increased Nuclear Activity
Nuclear activity at Fordow, characterized by new, high levels of enrichment, is a marked deviation from previous breaches of the accord. Such an escalation suggests that Iran will continue to violate the treaty, increasing enrichment in an effort to gain power, increase its nuclear capabilities, and produce weapons. In retaliation, the United States will maintain its current sanctions, potentially implementing further measures to curtail Iran, and the United Kingdom, France, and Germany will enact new sanctions. These actions, and the escalation of tensions they represent, will dissolve the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran is likely to continue violating the 2015 treaty and increasing levels of enrichment in a continued attempt to leverage European signatories and become a world nuclear power. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, faces internal conservative pressure and a failing economy. These factors mean that Iran has little to lose and, with weapons that would give the country global status as a nuclear power, much to gain. If Iran continues enrichment at Fordow, the 2015 nuclear deal will come to an end, especially when compounded by a lack of support from the United States, significant security concerns on the part of the European signatories, and a volatile Iran.
The Effect of US Abandonment of the Deal
The United States, under the Trump administration, currently maintains an offensive strategy regarding Iran. President Donald Trump enacted a “maximum pressure campaign” of American sanctions after the United States withdrew from the deal in 2018 that have crippled Iran’s economy. Prior to enrichment at Fordow, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany were sympathetic to Iran. Many JCPOA signatories, as well as some US legislators, felt that American withdrawal from the accord was unwise. Therefore, after the United States abandoned the deal, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany sought to work around the new American sanctions devastating Iran’s economy and provide aid. They were unsuccessful.
Iran’s resumption of sensitive nuclear activities at Fordow has forced European signatories into an uncomfortable position. The European powers that signed the deal sympathized with Iran after the United States withdrew, but Iran’s recent breach tests the limits of that sympathy. When Iran began low-level enrichment this past spring, the European nations turned a blind eye. Now Iran’s enrichment levels exceed 20 percent, dramatically higher than the 3.67 percent cap established by the treaty. Such elevated levels markedly decrease breakout time, which means Iran can produce nuclear weapons much faster than was possible within the confines of the accord. Enrichment at Fordow threatens not only the accord itself, but also critical European security interests. These threats have led the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to consider abandoning their supportive stance on Iran and discuss the implementation of sanctions. Such high levels of enrichment are utterly unprecedented and, due to decreased breakout time, cross perceived European “red lines.”
To Sanction Or Not To Sanction
In light of these developments, German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass has threatened to impose sanctions. Similarly, the United Kingdom has expressed interest in triggering the “dispute mechanism” included in the accord, which would dissolve the 2015 treaty in its entirety and reimpose European sanctions. French President Emmanuel Macron is hesitant to take such a hard-line stance, but with such strong statements from his European counterparts, it is doubtful that less aggressive measures will prove fruitful. However, European sanctions, in addition to those imposed by the United States, will further devastate Iran’s economy, enrage its conservative faction, and generate anti-Western sentiment, ultimately leading to destabilization and an increasingly nuclear Iran.
United States imposed sanctions on Iran in 2018, a decision that was met with consternation on the part of JCPOA signatories and some US legislators. Before renouncing the accord, Trump argued that the treaty did not adequately address potential Iranian ballistic missile capabilities and expressed concern over the sunset clause, which would allow Iran to resume nuclear activities in 2031 without international oversight. The US decision to abandon the treaty generated economic disaster in Iran. Before the 2015 accord came into effect, sanctions cost Iran $160 billion in revenue over four years. The reimposition of American sanctions forced Iran to seek European help and, when the three signatories failed to provide aid, take further action.
A Dissolving Deal
Iran did not attempt to hide its resumption of enrichment from the IAEA. In fact, Iran’s most recent enrichment seeks to catalyze European aid to offset the damage from American sanctions. However, Iran is unlikely to succeed here. Enrichment at Fordow has gone too far. It threatens Europe and thus ensures that France, Germany, and the United Kingdom will no longer be willing to help Iran. Since the United States imposed sanctions in 2018 without any violations of the accord, as part of the “maximum pressure campaign,” there will be no respite for Iran now. The US campaign, coupled with its hard-line rhetoric, ensures that the United States will not ease sanctions and may take further action. Iran’s blatant violation of the 2015 treaty will serve to further justify aggressive American policy and lessen European sympathies.
The 2015 nuclear deal will not survive unless a significant change occurs. In the event of a treaty violation, members of JCPOA can appeal to the United Nations Security Council. If the appeal is successful, a “snapback” occurs, which would reinstate previous sanctions on Iran from the United States and Europe. Currently, there are discussions of a joint response from JCPOA that will address enrichment at Fordow, but, otherwise, JCPOA’s course of action is unclear. Furthermore, the United States is considering expanding its military presence in the Middle East in a direct response to Iranian enrichment. Tensions are growing.
In light of the blatant violations of the treaty by Iran, in addition to its abandonment by the United States, it is unlikely that the deal will survive. Iran’s enrichment of uranium has further exacerbated US-Iran tensions, threatened European interests, and may have fully terminated the deal. Through enrichment, Iran has isolated itself globally, alienated sympathetic JCPOA signatories, and potentially exposed itself to future snapback sanctions from Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Iran wants to appear strong internationally, so it is doubtful that Iran will cease uranium enrichment. Iran, in engaging in sensitive nuclear activities and angering sympathetic powers, has orchestrated not only the termination of the JCPOA but also its own downfall.
The photo featured in this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original photo was taken by the United States Department of State and can be found here.
Katherine Leahy is a second-year Political Science major who spent the summer working as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Rocky Mountains. On campus, she sings in the University Chorus, serves as a Chicago Swing Dance Society board member, and works as a research assistant. In her free time, she enjoys fiction, hiking in places with real elevation, mediocre coffee, and exploring Chicago with her friends.