The Slatest

The Iran Deal Is Finally Starting to Collapse

Mohammad Javad Zarif and Hassan Rouhani.
Iranian Foreign Secretary Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani at the Austrian Chamber of Commerce on July 4, 2018, in Vienna.
Michael Gruber/Getty Images

It’s been more than a year since President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, but the deal is finally collapsing. The Iranian government announced Monday that the country has breached the limit placed on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium under the deal signed in 2015.

This does not come as a surprise, though it is perhaps a few days earlier than expected. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced May 8 that the European nations still party to the deal had 60 days to assure Iran that it could reap the economic benefits it is entitled to in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. Without those assurances, he said, Iran would begin to violate those restrictions.

The deal caps Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium at 300 kilograms. This amount is not enough to make a weapon, but it is the surest signal yet that Iran is abandoning the limits meant to prevent it from doing so. Iran has also vowed to start enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels later this month.

Iran reportedly held off on making the announcement until after a summit in Vienna last Friday with the remaining parties to the deal, which was billed as a last-chance attempt to salvage it. In withdrawing from the deal, Trump not only imposed sanctions on U.S. companies trading with Iran, but also imposed “secondary sanctions” meant to force companies in other countries to comply. European countries have tried to get around these sanctions by setting up a barter system to allow Iranian and European companies to trade goods without currency crossing borders, but it’s only just become operational and probably won’t be enough to deliver the level of trade Iran wants. European governments could now, in theory, trigger the “snapback” mechanisms included in the original deal, which could lead to the reimposition of U.N. sanctions in Iran. But they may also wait a bit to try to salvage at least some aspects of it before Iran is in complete violation. (Russia and China are also party to the deal but are Iranian allies and unlikely to take steps to punish the country.)

As this milestone approached, the Trump administration put itself in the awkward position of demanding that Iran comply with the terms of an agreement that the U.S. itself had abandoned. The administration even claimed through circuitous logic that Iran’s actions showed why Trump was right to be skeptical of the deal in the first place. The bottom line is that for all the deal’s limitations, Iran had been complying with its terms until Trump abandoned it.

Trump has maintained that Iran is “not the same country” as when he started. He’s right. Iran has only been acting more aggressively and violently toward U.S. allies and interests in the region over the past year and shows little sign that its interested in returning to the negotiating table with the Trump administration.

In retrospect, what’s remarkable is that the Iran deal has held together at least in some form as long as it has. Its final collapse may come a lot quicker.