Since early July, President Hassan Rouhani and several other officials have been announcing Iran’s intention to start going beyond the restrictions set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Specifically, Iran has said that it would enrich uranium above the terms of the agreement and that it would also allow the amount of stored uranium to exceed the weight limit specified by the JCPOA.
According to the JCPOA, the agreement that Iran signed with the U.S., the UK, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia and China in 2015, Iran was obliged to cap its level of uranium enrichment at 3.67 percent. And every international inspection since that time has confirmed Iran’s conformance.
In May 2018, the Trump administration unilaterally violated the JCPOA, an agreement the U.S. government had signed, and imposed severe sanctions on Iran. All the other signatories of the JCPOA stated that they would still honor the deal. However, that is little comfort to Iran, given the fact that the U.S. sanctions not only ban U.S. entities from trading with Iran but effectively prevent the entire world from doing so.
Iran has repeatedly stated that in order to stay in the deal it would need to see real benefits from it. If it cannot trade internationally, what is the point of Iran conforming to the JCPOA’s restrictions? Given the fact that the U.S. overtly violated the JCPOA 14 months ago, it is no surprise that Iran no longer sees itself obliged to adhere to the agreement’s terms. If anything, it is surprising that Iran has stayed within the confines of the deal for so long.
What limits is Iran exceeding?
Enriched uranium of 3-to-5 percent purity is used primarily for power plants. Iran has a nuclear power plant in Bushehr that needs this low-enriched uranium for its fuel. High-enriched uranium (around 20 percent) has, among other things, medical uses, such as CT-scans. Weapons-grade uranium is in the 90 percent + range and is the material used for nuclear bombs.
At this time, Iran intends to enrich uranium up to 4.5 percent, although there has been talk of going up to 20 percent. The way the corporate media cover this development is often devoid of context, portraying Iran’s announcements as another indication of the aggressive nature of that country’s government. They often use terms like Iran is “inching towards weapons-grade enrichment.” When weapons-grade enrichment is 90 percent or higher, going from 3.67 percent to 4.5 percent is “inching towards weapons grade” the same way that driving from Florida to Georgia is inching towards the North Pole!
According to the JCPOA, Iran is limited to keeping within its borders 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of enriched uranium, and should ship abroad any enriched uranium above this limit. The purported purpose of imposing this limit was to prevent Iran from attempting to develop nuclear weapons, which requires high amounts of uranium. Realistically, Iran storing more enriched uranium should be of no concern to anyone. In addition to a dozen or so other nuclear countries, Iran itself used to have way more than 300 kg of enriched uranium before the JCPOA.
Nuclear arms safe in imperialist hands?
The utter hypocrisy of restrictions and limits imposed on Iran is laid bare by the fact that the U.S. and European imperialists not only have tons of enriched uranium stored but also thousands of active nuclear warheads. But the corporate media lead us to believe that Iran going over the 300-kg limit is an existential threat to humanity.
The underlying principle of the JCPOA is that imperialist powers in possession of a terrifying stockpile of nuclear weapons have the right to ban an oppressed country from even owning significant amounts of enriched uranium! So the U.S. is violating an agreement that is already grossly unfair against Iran.
Predictably, the Trump administration reacted to Iran’s announcements with more threats. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised even more sanctions. The new White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, got creative and made the following comical statement: “There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms.” How a country could violate the terms of a deal before the deal’s existence is something only the White House could explain!
Will Instex be a game changer?
Since Trump’s breach of the JCPOA, Iran has demanded that the European Union’s big three, the UK, France and Germany, provide it with ways in which it can engage in international trade. In the summer of 2018, the Europeans announced the creation of a financial vehicle, which came to be called Instex. The EU3 would set up Instex as a barter trade mechanism that avoids direct financial transfers by offsetting balances between importers and exporters on the European side. This would potentially enable Iran to trade without detection by the U.S., hence sparing governments and private entities that trade with Iran from U.S. sanctions.
Iran will likely stay within the JCPOA if Instex becomes a reality. Up to now, the EU3 have been extremely slow to move on this initiative. On the one hand, they want to demonstrate some level of independence from the U.S. Trump calling the JCPOA the “worst deal ever” revealed how little regard his administration had for the junior imperialist partners of the U.S. On the other hand, the EU3 do not want to risk the wrath of their senior partner, the top dog of the imperialist world.
Iran’s decision to break out of the JCPOA limits is likely a way to tell the EU3 that, after more than a year, Iran is unwilling to honor the agreement while the EU3 refuse to take any practical steps to help Iran bi-pass the unilateral sanctions. Iran knows that the Trump administration is exerting maximum pressure to scare the Europeans away from making Instex functional. By upping the stakes, the EU3 are forced now to either cave to U.S. pressure and effectively scrap Instex, or actually make it functional, in which case Iran will have reason to stay within the JCPOA.
The EU3, therefore, are walking a tight rope. The British Navy’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar on July 4 is a step to appease the United States. The British claim to be enforcing European Union (not UN) sanctions banning oil exports to Syria. What gives the EU the right to ban oil shipments to Syria and even seize an oil tanker headed for that country is imperialist exceptionalism.
Syria is not in Europe and whether or not it receives oil shipments is not to be determined by the Europeans. But given the declining fortunes of the Western-supported opposition in Syria, reactionary fundamentalists such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, and various like-minded forces allied with them, the Europeans had not taken any steps to enforce the sanctions on Syria. Iran has announced that the oil tanker was not even headed for Syria. So the British seizure of the tanker, which has yet to be released as of this writing, is the Europeans’ way of “getting tough on Iran.” Not surprisingly, the seizure has met John Bolton’s enthusiastic approval.
Going in the opposite direction of the oil tanker seizure, on July 4 French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire announced: “We want Instex to enter into force in a few days, and I hope that we will be able to operate in a few days. I hope the first transaction will be completed in a few days. … The first transaction will be a limited one, but this is a starting point and we expect Instex to be an efficient tool.”
On July 7, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated that all of the steps Iran has taken away from the nuclear deal “are reversible,” but only if the EU3 comply with the deal and “counter U.S unilateralism.”
Rather than wild and unpredictable actions of a mad leadership hell bent on manufacturing nuclear weapons, Iran’s exceeding the JCPOA limits is a deliberate action intended to force the EU’s hand at making Instex functional.
Task of progressives in the U.S.
It is important for progressive and anti-war forces in the U.S. to be clear on the essence of this conflict between the Trump administration and the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is a clear case of an imperialist country, the head of the imperialist club, economically strangling an oppressed country. There is also the possibility of a war, with the danger of another U.S. genocidal war in the Middle East. The common liberal perception of the conflict as two sets of bad guys going against each other misses the mark by a mile. It faults Trump only for his methods, not the imperialist essence of his policy.
When the Bush administration announced its intent to invade Iraq in 2003 based on the ridiculous claim of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, the Democratic Party did not rush to oppose the war. Virtually all Democrats, certainly all those in the leadership, lined up in support of the war — for example, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer.
Today, the ANSWER Coalition, of which the Party for Socialism and Liberation is a member, is not demanding that Trump develop a comprehensive strategy towards Iran or make a better case for its aggressive actions against Iran. We are demanding an unequivocal end to U.S. hostilities against Iran. We demand that there be no sanctions, no threats, no aggression, no war against Iran.
Building an antiwar movement demands a lot of struggle but also clarity about the nature of imperialism. Let’s build a movement to stand against U.S. war and other forms of aggression.