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Flaring tensions could kill Iran nuclear deal; to what end?

BERLIN – The landmark 2015 deal between Tehran and world powers aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons has been teetering on the edge of collapse since the United States pulled out unilaterally in 2018. The European Union says it will “spare no effort” to keep the deal alive, but with tensions between the U.S. and Iran escalating into open hostilities it seems increasingly unlikely that will be possible.

WHAT HAPPENS IF THE NUCLEAR DEAL FAILS?

The short answer is that every step Iran takes past the limitations of the deal reduces the so-called “break-out time” to produce a nuclear warhead — which is still something Iran insists it does not want to do. Before the deal, conservative estimates were that Iran was within five to six months of being able to produce a bomb, while some feared it was within two to three months. With the deal safeguards in place the break-out time was estimated to be more than a year. Diplomats involved note that means Iran could produce a single device in that time. It would take longer to build an arsenal and delivery system, though Tehran already has developed its own short and medium-range ballistic missiles with enough range to hit targets as far away as parts of Europe.

WHAT DOES THE DEAL DO?

Iran insists its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, and the deal allows the country to run reactors to generate power. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, restricts the number and types of centrifuges Iran could use, puts limits on how much heavy water and enriched uranium it can stockpile, and restricts the purity level to which it can enrich uranium. Iran has had to grant inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency access to its facilities to verify its compliance. In return, Iran has received economic sanctions relief from the U.S., E.U. and the U.N. Security Council.

WHY IS IT FAILING?

President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the deal in May 2018, saying it was insufficient and should be re-negotiated because it didn't address Iran's ballistic missile program or its involvement in regional conflicts. Since then, Washington has pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, reinstating American sanctions with the stated goal of forcing Tehran back to the negotiating table. Those sanctions have taken a toll on Iran's economy, and sent its currency into a downward spiral. The other countries involved in the deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — along with the European Union are sticking to the deal, saying it has been working and remains the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. However, they have thus far been unsuccessful in providing new economic incentives to offset the U.S. sanctions. Dissatisfied with those efforts, Iran has been openly and gradually violating the terms of the agreement.

WHERE DO THINGS STAND?

Iran has breached the main limitations of the nuclear deal, exceeding the stockpiles of heavy water and uranium allowed, the number and types of centrifuges it can operate to enrich uranium, and the purity of uranium. The accord limits Iran to enriching uranium to 3.67%, which can fuel a commercial nuclear power plant. Weapons-grade uranium needs to be enriched to around 90%. However, once a country enriches uranium to around 20%, scientists say the time needed to reach 90% is halved. Iran previously enriched to 20%. Last summer, Iran boosted its enrichment purity to 4.5%. Following the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran announced what it said was its fifth and final step in violating the deal, saying it no longer will abide by any limitation to its enrichment activities.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

The U.S. has been urging the other parties to the JCPOA to abandon the deal, a position reiterated by Trump on Wednesday when he said “they must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal" and work together on a better one.

In Brussels, however, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed that her envoy would “spare no effort” to safeguard the deal. All powers still in the deal have been urging Iran to return to compliance. Britain, Germany, France and the E.U. have gone one step farther, threatening to invoke the pact's dispute resolution mechanism — something China and Russia have been against —which would start the clock on a 30-day period in which to resolve the problem, which can be extended. If the problem persists, the matter could be brought before the U.N. Security Council and could result in the "snapback" of sanctions that had been lifted under the deal. Diplomats involved have been stressing hope that the dispute can be resolved without that.

Even in announcing the “fifth step” of violations, Iran stressed that it remained in the JCPOA and that it could reverse everything it has done. It was also vague about whether the fifth step would mean any change to its current activities, saying that would be up to the country's atomic energy agency. But Iran suggested that if the dispute resolution mechanism and snapback were instituted, it would mean the end of the deal.