WASHINGTON — Iran threatened on Monday to accelerate its nuclear program in violation of a 2015 nuclear agreement, moving it closer to the ability to buildi an atomic weapon — something that President Trump has vowed to prevent.
But it was Mr. Trump who withdrew the United States from the Obama-era nuclear agreement in May 2018, saying the deal wasn’t tough enough. Since then the administration has steadily imposed ever harsher sanctions on Iran as the country’s economy has sharply declined.
Until recently, Iran has held up its side of the bargain, which is still in force with five other countries: freezing much of its nuclear activity in return for relief from harsh economic sanctions. But last month, Iran’s president announced that Tehran would edge away from the restrictions. On Monday he said that by the end of this month, the country would have stockpiled more nuclear fuel than the deal allowed. Iran also suggested it might start enriching that fuel to levels higher than what is needed for nuclear power plants — its stated purpose for the nuclear program.
Is Iran’s threat dangerous?
It could be. Iran is essentially threatening to shorten its timeline to develop a nuclear weapon, an outcome Mr. Trump has said he would take military action to prevent.
A core objective of the 2015 nuclear deal — struck between Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — was to keep Iran at least one year from being able to construct a nuclear bomb. (Iran insists that its nuclear program it has developed over several decades is for peaceful purposes.)
But that timeline could shorten if Iran follows through on its most recent threats, which it calls a response to American sanctions that Iran says are, well, a deal-breaker. The escalation could precipitate an international crisis and increase the likelihood of a military confrontation.
“I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons,” Mr. Trump told Fox News last month.
How has the nuclear deal limited Iran’s program?
The nuclear agreement, which Mr. Trump has called “the worst deal ever” and a “disaster,” placed strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting international sanctions on Tehran.
Under the terms of the deal, Iran can stockpile no more than 300 kilograms, or 660 pounds, of so-called low-enriched uranium, a small fraction of what it previously hoarded. To remain under the stockpile limit, Iran has shipped low-enriched uranium out of the country.
In addition, the deal says that Iran can enrich uranium to contain no more than 3.67 percent of an isotope which, in high enough concentration, can produce a mushroom cloud. That limit is in effect until 2030. Critics of the deal call that date too soon.
The nuclear deal placed other restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, including its development of advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium more quickly. It also required International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites.
So far Iran has limited its threats to its uranium stockpile and its enrichment level.
What exactly is Iran threatening to do?
Iran says it will stockpile more — and more dangerous — nuclear fuel.
Iran is now warning that it will soon exceed the 300 kilogram limit and could also follow through with its threat to enrich uranium to higher levels.
Before the nuclear deal, Iran was enriching its uranium to 20 percent purity, a level that takes it perilously close to what is required to build a nuclear weapon. Although it takes a lot of work to get from the current 3.67 percent enrichment to 20 percent, it’s a relatively short hop in time and effort to get to 90 percent, which is considered bomb-grade material.
Why does Mr. Trump call the nuclear deal a disaster?
Mr. Trump and senior administration officials say that President Barack Obama allowed Iran to retain too much of its nuclear infrastructure, and that the deal’s provisions “sunset” dangerously early, leaving Iran with the ability to quickly develop a nuclear bomb in little more than a decade.
The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress also say that lifting American and European economic sanctions gave Iran a financial windfall that Tehran’s clerical leaders have used to pay for terrorism and destabilizing military activity across the Middle East. Mr. Trump and senior officials have also said that the deal does not meaningfully limit its ballistic missile program.
The agreement was an important part of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy legacy, and Mr. Trump has seemed to take particular relish in overturning it. Mr. Obama believed the deal could be a step toward empowering moderates within Iran’s government and softening bitter relations with the West. Trump administration officials argue that Iran’s government will respond only to “maximum pressure.”
How much closer to a nuclear bomb could Iran get?
It depends. Before the nuclear deal, Iran had a “breakout time” of just weeks before it had the capability to build a nuclear weapon, Obama administration officials said.
But that is a theoretical timeline describing how long it would take Iran to enrich enough uranium for one bomb. It remains unclear whether Iran has the technical capability to construct a nuclear weapon, much less fit it onto a ballistic missile for delivery. Iran currently has a missile that could strike most of the Middle East and some of Europe, though not the U.S.
What does Iran want?
It is possible that Iran is beginning a sprint to constructing a nuclear bomb, although that would be exceedingly dangerous, with a military response expected from the United States and perhaps Israel. In the near term, Iran is probably trying to drive a wedge between the Trump administration and European allies in hope of finding relief from the sanctions that are constricting its economy.
Ideally, Iran would like Mr. Trump to reverse the severe pressure he has imposed on its economy since he abandoned the nuclear deal last year. That includes American demands that other nations halt their purchase of Iranian oil — the country’s main source of revenue — and that they choose between doing business with Iran or with the United States.
Such a reversal is unlikely for now. So Iran is hoping that other parties to the nuclear deal, which are eager to avert an international crisis and possible military conflict, will resist the American pressure and find ways to do business with Tehran.
One option is a kind of barter system designed by Britain, Germany and France that would allow European nations to trade with Iran without using the dollar and triggering American economic reprisals. But the system has major inherent limitations.
Iran may also be betting that Mr. Trump, who has been critical of past American entanglements in the Middle East, does not want a conflict, and that an escalation of tensions could draw him into negotiations.
Could the nuclear deal be reinstated in 2021 by a new president?
Several Democratic candidates for president, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have said they would seek to rejoin the nuclear deal. In February, the Democratic National Committee adopted a resolution saying that the United States “should return to its obligations” under the agreement. A new president could reverse the sanctions Mr. Trump imposed, although Congress could resist.
Until recently, it even appeared that Iran planned to wait out Mr. Trump in the hope of just such a scenario. But Monday’s threats suggest that Iran, perhaps because of its deteriorating economy, has lost patience.