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Iran says it’s now enriching uranium at levels higher than before nuclear deal

The announcement is mainly a message to Western Europeans, an Iranian audience, and maybe Trump.

An Iranian flag in Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, during an official ceremony on November 10 to start work at a second reactor at the facility.
Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani just said his country is now enriching uranium at a higher level than before the nuclear deal restricted that activity — an assertion that is likely to anger both the Trump administration and the administration’s critics.

That’s because highly enriched uranium can be used to make a nuclear bomb.

Trump has said repeatedly that he will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapon on his watch, so the White House is likely to see Rouhani’s statement as a clear provocation.

But Trump also pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal, which many experts believe was the most effective way to prevent Iran from achieving a bomb. Critics of that decision, and of the Trump administration’s broader “maximum pressure” strategy toward Iran, are thus likely to see Rouhani’s announcement as further evidence of the wrongheadedness of that approach.

Both are right, to some degree. Rouhani’s statement is certainly provocative. But it’s also a direct consequence of the US pulling out of the nuclear agreement — as Rouhani himself made clear.

“In response to the US’ withdrawal from its obligations, we decided to reduce our commitments step by step,” Rouhani said in his address at a meeting with the Islamic Republic’s Central Bank on Thursday.

It’s important to note that Rouhani’s statement doesn’t mean Iran is moving to build a nuclear weapon. It’s still roughly a year away from obtaining a bomb if it decided to start building one, and its enrichment thresholds are still far below what is required to make a successful device. What’s more, the Iranian regime has never actually come out and said it wants to build a nuclear weapon.

There’s also another reason to remain calm: Rouhani could be, and likely is, overhyping the situation. “Iran is currently operating only a fraction of the centrifuges it had pre-JCPOA,” says Henry Rome, an Iran expert at the Eurasia Group international consulting firm, using the initials for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name of the nuclear deal. “Iran is prone to exaggeration about its nuclear capabilities when it talks to domestic audiences.”

Elana DeLozier, a nuclear weapons expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, tweeted Thursday afternoon that Iran would almost need to quadruple its production in just a month’s time.

The only way to know if Rouhani is telling the truth is after a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog, on Iran’s nuclear compliance comes out next month.

Which raises the question: Why would Rouhani make such a statement? Well, it’s a mix of external and internal reasons.

Rouhani is sending a message to European and Iranians (and the US)

The 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the US, European powers, and China put tight restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear efforts in exchange for sanctions relief. The Obama administration’s goal was to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon diplomatically, instead of by force, and it effectively persuaded Iran with financial incentives to do so.

But Trump withdrew America from the deal in May 2018, reimposed burdensome financial penalties on Iran, and pushed European countries to cease their business with the country. That led Iran to lash out by force — such as bombing oil tankers in international waters — and by provocatively restarting its nuclear work.

On Tuesday, France, Germany, and the UK — the three Western European powers in the agreement — formally complained that Iran was no longer abiding by its end of the bargain. “We have therefore been left with no choice, given Iran’s actions, but to register today our concerns that Iran is not meeting its commitments under the JCPoA,” read their joint statement. Should they over time choose to withdraw from the deal, too, then it dies.

Rouhani’s message, experts say, could be interpreted as a signal to those European nations: stay in the deal and we’ll abide by the limits, or else.

Rome, however, believes Rouhani’s was intended mostly for a domestic audience. “The JCPOA didn’t hold us back” is what the Iranian president was conveying, he told me, which would make it look like Iran didn’t suffer any nuclear setbacks. That, however, remains to be seen.

The most important person to hear what Rouhani said may in the end be Trump. If he feels Iran is inching closer to a bomb, he may choose to place more economic sanctions on Iran or, less likely, authorize a military strike. Which makes Rouhani’s statement, and Iran’s decision to further enrich uranium, quite the gamble: It could pressure other nations to back down, or otherwise escalate already roiling tensions.