One of Iran’s greatest diplomatic achievements in recent years was getting the world to recognize its right to enrich uranium suitable for nuclear fuel. The Trump administration has now undermined it.
On Friday, the State Department renewed some exemptions to U.S. sanctions on Iran’s nuclear activities and ended others. The renewals initially attracted more attention than the terminations. Yet make no mistake: One sanction that will now be reimposed, preventing Iran from sending enriched uranium to Russia in exchange for natural yellowcake uranium, could effectively kill the deal — a realization Europe seems to have made over the weekend.
The sanctions will hurt “efforts to pursue the legitimate trade that the agreement allows for,” read an EU statement released Saturday. The U.S. State Department had already issued a statement on Friday: “Iran must stop all proliferation-sensitive activities, including uranium enrichment, and we will not accept actions that support the continuation of such enrichment.”
The so-called “right to enrich” was the first concession the U.S. and five other powers made to Iran ahead of formal nuclear negotiations in 2015. Until then, it was U.S. policy to oppose any enrichment for countries that sought peaceful nuclear energy. The United Arab Emirates and other U.S. allies had signed agreements that forswore this activity because the process for making uranium suitable for fuel uses the same science necessary to enrich uranium suitable for a bomb.
Until Friday, the Trump administration did not sanction Russia for its uranium swaps with Iran. Now those swaps can be sanctioned. And while some waivers on Iranian civil nuclear activity were renewed, they were renewed for only 90 days instead of the customary 180.
All of this is a pleasant surprise for Washington’s Iran hawks, who gained further support Sunday with National Security Adviser John Bolton’s announcement that the U.S. would be deploying a carrier group to the region to send a message to Iran. In March, a handful of Republican senators and staffers on the National Security Council were worried that the State Department would issue new waivers for countries to import Iranian oil and continue cooperation on civil nuclear cooperation. Had those waivers gone through, they argued, it could have kept the deal alive beyond 2020, when a Democratic president-elect could have revived it.
That didn’t happen. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the end of the oil waivers, and on Friday the State Department ended the two most important waivers on cooperation. (Besides the renewed prohibitions on trades with Russia, Iran will also no longer be able to ship so-called heavy water to Oman.)
The hawks have noticed. Senator Ted Cruz lauded the decision to end what he called the “notorious ‘Right To Enrich’ waiver,” though he said he was disappointed that some of the waivers would continue for another 90 days.
The ball is now in Iran’s court, and the regime is not happy. The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, announced over the weekend that Iran would continue its uranium enrichment. Meanwhile, the head of the parliament’s national security committee said Iran’s diplomats should begin discussions with other parties to the nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at even higher levels.
But the regime has huffed and puffed about countermeasures ever since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal a year ago. So far, it has continued to abide by the terms of that agreement. Iran’s supreme leader must decide whether it’s worth testing Trump’s resolve now, or wait to see what happens after next year’s U.S. election.